Thursday September 22rd, 2005

Fuel trucks, contra-flow traffic plan helping evacuating motorists…Oil and chemical companies close refineries in advance of Hurricane Rita…OSHA levies $21 million fine against BP over deadly March explosion and fire at Texas City refinery… Governor Rick Perry says fuel trucks are being dispatched along Texas evacuation routes to help motorists who are fleeing Hurricane Rita. […]

Fuel trucks, contra-flow traffic plan helping evacuating motorists…Oil and chemical companies close refineries in advance of Hurricane Rita…OSHA levies $21 million fine against BP over deadly March explosion and fire at Texas City refinery…

Governor Rick Perry says fuel trucks are being dispatched along Texas evacuation routes to help motorists who are fleeing Hurricane Rita. Perry says the fuel will be available, such as along Interstate 45, where some drivers have reported running out of gas due to the slow flow of traffic. Officials instituted a contra-flow pattern on some evacuation routes, allowing northbound traffic to travel on both north and southbound lanes. Perry also spoke to President Bush today and asked that 10,000 federal troops be pre-positioned to help Texas before and after Rita makes landfall. Texas authorities have begun airlifting special needs and other people from the Beaumont and Houston areas. Homeland Security officials say those evacuees will be transported to San Antonio, Amarillo, El Paso, Dallas, Fort Worth and Lubbock. Hundreds of federal officials have arrived in Texas with truckloads of water, food, ice and medical supplies destined for the coast once Rita makes landfall. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up a field office in Austin.

There’s a problem at the airport in Houston. Mayor Bill White says most of the airport’s Federal Transportation Security Administration personnel didn’t show up for work today. Those are the security people, including the ones that screen passengers. White says the loss of those essential workers means delays for travelers of possibly four or five hours.

Forecasters say Hurricane Rita could be down to a still-destructive Category Three by the time it comes ashore amid the nation’s biggest concentration of oil refineries. Barbara Shook with Energy Intelligence says oil companies began closing refineries Wednesday.

Barbara Shook audio 1

BP began closing its massive Texas City refinery, and Marathon Oil followed suit at its plant nearby. Valero Energy announced late yesterday that it was shuttering refineries in Texas City and Houston. Shook says it’s no small matter to shut down a refinery.

Barbara Shook audio 2

The region’s many chemical plants have also begun shutting down. Dow Chemical and Lyondell Chemical closed some plants, although others remained operating late Wednesday.

Port of Houston employees have been unloading the last group of ships, according to the port’s executive director. Tom Kornegay says it’s part of getting ready for Hurricane Rita.

Tom Kornegay audio

Kornegay says it the water surges, it might flow over the docks, but not by much–perhaps six to eight inches. The port has plans in place that are re-evaluated after each hurricane event.

Retail and supply experts say big chain stores like Arkansas-based Wal-Mart can work around hurricane-related disruptions at the Ports of Houston and New Orleans. But damage to local economies may harm the bottom lines for many retailers. Suppliers have been working around the Port of New Orleans, which was damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Analysts say trade disruptions are coming at a bad time for retailers, with holiday-season shipments already arriving. But damage to local economies and lingering high fuel prices could do more to drag down profits than having to reroute shipments.

Gulf coast newspapers in the projected path of Hurricane Rita are scrambling to keep employees safe while keeping readers informed–mainly through web sites. The Galveston County Daily News evacuated its offices in Galveston and Texas City but hoped to continue printing after landfall. The Port Arthur News and the Orange Leader won’t publish tomorrow but will update their web sites and resume publishing Sunday. The Baytown Sun published a noon edition today before its staff moved to safer ground. They’re monitoring the storm’s path to determine where to move operations. The Houston Chronicle plans to publish as usual but has arranged alternate newsrooms and presses in southwest Houston and–if necessary–San Antonio. The Beaumont Enterprise also planned to operate and publish as usual. If that becomes impossible, arrangements have been made to publish from Lake Charles, Louisiana. The Victoria Advocate won’t publish tomorrow or Saturday but will update its web site.

Texas homeowners and property insurers are bracing for potentially billions of dollars in damages from Hurricane Rita. Texas homeowners already pay the highest premiums in the country. A direct hit could affect prices statewide as insurance companies write checks to cover their losses. Jerry Johns with the Southwestern Insurance Information Service says rates are based on losses. Most insurance companies don’t write policies in coastal communities. Those are covered by the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association. That association is the insurer of last resort created by the legislature in 1971 after Hurricane Celia caused about $350 million in damage. The association is the primary insurer for coastal property in 14 Gulf Coast counties and a sliver of Harris County, with about $25 billion in policies. Texas Department of Insurance spokesman Jim Hurley said Rita’s potential impact on rates will depend on the amount of damage.

The government says another 103,000 Americans, directly affected by Hurricane Katrina, filed claims for unemployment assistance last week. That brings the total number of hurricane-related jobless claims tracked by the Labor Department up to 214,000. The additional hurricane-related claims are part of a nationwide total of 432,000 last week. That’s the biggest number since July 2003. Congressional budget office estimates have suggested that Katrina-related job losses could eventually total 400,000. The Labor Department says a state-by-state breakdown finds that nearly 50,000 claims were filed in Louisiana and another 5,000 in Mississippi through September 10th. The state data lags the national claims information by one week.

Federal safety officials today levied a $21 million fine against BP over a deadly March explosion and fire at its Texas City refinery. Fifteen workers were killed and 170 others were injured in the March 23rd blast. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced, in Dallas what it says is the largest fine in its history. OSHA says the fine is part of a settlement with BP Products North America. Regional OSHA administrator John Miles, Jr., says the health and safety culture of the plant was lax, which contributed to the blast. He also says OSHA is considering whether to refer some violations to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. BP has said human error led to the blast.

City officials say a Port Arthur oil refinery plans an expansion that would double its capacity, making it one of the nation’s largest. Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz says Motiva is planning a $3.8 billion expansion that would increase the refinery’s capacity from 285,000 barrels per day to as much as 570,000 barrels. That would make the refinery larger than Exxon Mobil’s Baytown refinery, which is the biggest in the United States. A Motiva spokesman couldn’t confirm details of the expansion, but says the company is starting a process engineering study to find a Gulf refinery to expand. Motiva is a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and Saudi Aramco.

Dallas-based 7-11 says its directors are advising shareholders not to accept a buyout offer from parent 7-11 Japan. The company says its advisers are discussing a prospective increased offer, but there can be no assurance it will get an improved proposal. The chain operates or franchises about 58,000 stores in the U. S. and Canada and licenses more than 22,000 worldwide. Seven-eleven Japan, which owns about 73 percent of the U. S. company’s stock, announced earlier this month it was making a $1.2 billion tender offer for the remaining shares.

Texas has recovered nearly $1.9 million in a Medicaid fraud investigation. Details were announced by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. He says the matter involves Gambro Healthcare and its subsidiary, Gambro Supply Corporation. The Texas agreement is part of a 40-state settlement. Abbott says Gambro used its subsidiary supply company to fraudulently bill Medicaid for equipment it provided to people undergoing kidney dialysis treatments at home. A Gambro spokeswoman says the company had anticipated the overall $37.5 million settlement and put money aside for it.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required