Lessons learned from Hurricane Otis

By Jim Norine

4 min read

Article first published in Mexico Business News, January 2024. Reprinted with permission.

As we flew into Acapulco to join our colleagues at the International Mining Convention 2023, the flight attendant assured us that it was safe to fly in as there was no threat of a hurricane. All signs suggested Otis would be just another tropical storm.

As we landed, we got word that the storm would likely make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane. This was a bit more serious, but Acapulco is no stranger to hurricanes and we made our way to our hotels to get ready for the evening’s opening event. For many, this is the highlight of the annual conference. However, by the time I was settled in my hotel, the weather was looking stormy and I decided to skip the Expo Opening.

Facing Otis

When a hurricane hits, you know it. Even after being relocated to the basement of a massive hotel, surrounded by concrete walls and hundreds of staff and guests, I could feel when the 265 km/h winds hit and hear the wind scraping the cladding off the building. In rapid succession, the energy and communication infrastructure failed. It was only when we went outside afterward that I could absorb the full wrath of a Category 5 hurricane.

Communications networks were down. No calls, no text, no maps. It took me two days to make my way to relative safety in Mexico City. I was lucky; I met up with a group of mining professionals and between us, we had two rental cars. We made our way slowly north. Both sides of the highway were packed – people heading to Mexico City in one set of lanes, and army and government vehicles heading toward the relief effort in the other.

It was only after I reached Chilpancingo on my way to Mexico City that I was able to account for all our employees at the conference (all of whom had also found transport out of the city), reassure my wife and kids, and contact the business. It was a sobering experience.

Expect the Unexpected

There will be many lessons learned from Hurricane Otis (particularly by the weather forecasters). What I took from my experience, and the events that unfolded around me, is that we need to get much better at planning for unexpected events – weather events, pandemics, economic disruptions, cyberattacks, geopolitical turmoil, social disruption and more.

What is true at a macro level is also true at the micro level. Mining operations are often located in remote areas and harsh climates – far from outside help, should it be needed. They involve processes and activities where lives could potentially be put at risk. If you operate a mine – in Mexico or anywhere – you need to be prepared for the unexpected.

That doesn’t necessarily mean having a detailed plan for every eventuality, but you need to have thought through a range of potential scenarios, considered the implications of each, and created response plans.

Knowing I was heading into a tropical storm that could evolve into a hurricane, I should have considered the potential implications of downed utilities and communications networks. I would then have brought a satellite phone, some batteries and perhaps a map.

For mine owners, preparation and mitigation can start even earlier, at the exploration or design phase of a mining project. That’s when owners should be encouraging their engineering consultants and designers to think through the various risks that may be encountered across the mining life cycle and design their assets to withstand a range of scenarios. We believe mining organizations should be planning for more extreme weather events, climate impacts and environmental considerations.

The hotel we used in Acapulco was designed to withstand major seismic events. But it was only designed to withstand 140 km/h winds. Otis brought 265 km/h winds with gusts over 320 km/h. Had the designers considered the various possibilities – like a Category 5 hurricane – the damage to buildings and the local economy would have been greatly reduced.

Getting a Holistic View

This kind of integrated and holistic risk planning is not new. At Ausenco, our multidisciplinary teams often include specialized risk managers, operational readiness professionals, environmental experts, engineers and regulatory advisers who work together to help ensure that our clients are designing and operating their assets in ways that minimize risk and prioritize site safety.

Yet I’ll be the first to admit I could have done a better job at planning for risks on this trip. Next time, I will think twice before heading into a tropical storm. And if I do, I’ll most certainly be bringing a satellite-enabled device and a map. Lesson learned.

Contact Jim Norine to discuss further.