Early in the afternoon on May 20, operators of the nation's largest oil hub, in Cushing, Okla., braced themselves as a tornado cut a 17-mile path outside Oklahoma City.
Shawn Roberts, a division manager for Plains All-American Pipeline, joined much of the nation in disbelief. The twister killed two dozen people in central Oklahoma and flattened whole sections of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City about 70 miles south of Cushing.
"It was almost as if this was coming toward Cushing. It was almost as if we're playing a game and it isn't real," Roberts said, recounting his thoughts that morning as the storms gathered. Roberts chairs the Safety Alliance of Cushing, an organization of energy companies and local officials that coordinates disaster responses.
Dozens of companies store about 50 million barrels of U.S. and Canadian oil in Cushing, a town of about 8,000 people. The hundreds of tanks and confluence of underground pipelines serve as the trading point for oil futures and options contracts under the U.S. price benchmark West Texas Intermediate.
The hulking drums that hold as much as 500,000 barrels of light, sweet crude oil are spread out across Cushing's flat fields. Viewing this landscape through photographs from overhead conjures up ugly images under a storm scenario that includes 260 mph winds: metal chunks of tanks going airborne, mangled pipelines and oil spills.
Two weeks before the disaster in Moore and a cluster of tornadoes churned across the state's midsection, a couple of hundred people from the oil industry, regional emergency management offices, state and federal safety regulators, and divisions of the Department of Homeland Security and FBI held a disaster drill in Cushing.
The drill, a year in the making, imagined a worst-case scenario: an F5 tornado, a storm with all the force that later would pound Moore. It would include every oil terminal and pipeline operator in the Cushing complex, an organizational feat that required competing oil suppliers to pull together on the principle that the U.S. economy would depend on the careful management of a disaster aftermath at the remote storage hub.
It had been nearly a decade since a full-scale exercise of similar breadth. In 2004, the FBI sponsored a field exercise in Cushing that gamed out explosions, unexploded bombs, hostage takings, injuries and suspicious persons lurking outside containers containing strategic energy assets, a post-9/11 practice run that served the times.
Last year, when members of the Safety Alliance of Cushing considered what scenario made the most sense this time around, their minds went to a similar place: a terrorist attack.
"Then somebody said, 'Hey, we're in Tornado Alley,'" Roberts recalled.
Cushing has had its share of serious storm threats. Tornados and heavy winds are a way of life in Oklahoma. But the town has not seen an F5 tornado, a storm so big that it put its people, the environment and the town's rapidly expanding national oil hub in danger of a catastrophe.
Organizing around disasters
The Safety Alliance of Cushing -- known in and around Cushing by its acronym SAC -- is a who's who of midstream companies that physically store and move oil traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It includes pipeline operators like TransCanada Corp., Enterprise Products Partners LP and Enbridge Energy Partners LP, as well as oil refiners like CVR Energy Inc. and Phillips 66, and a number of companies that do nothing but buy and sell oil contracts.
The alliance started as an ad hoc attempt to get Cushing operators to start talking to one another after a 2001 transport accident. It has since developed into a widely known regional body, with its own constitution, mutual-aid agreements, and plans and procedures for managing a disaster response.
The rotating chairman's seat gives companies from different corners of the energy business a stake in Cushing's safety, while they erect more giant tanks in Cushing aimed at erasing an infrastructure deficit that has kept oil destined for Gulf Coast refineries bottled up in the middle of the continent.
It coordinates closely with the police and fire departments in Cushing, which are small but better equipped to handle hazardous materials than any municipality within hundreds of miles. It's still a challenge.
"We can have tons of assets to fight a release or tank fire, but if you have a tornado of that magnitude come through, those assets are probably gone," Roberts said. "The whole thing was designed to be a learning experience."
A run through 'mass chaos'
At 8 a.m. May 7, every terminal manager in Cushing got a "Nixel" alert. An F5 tornado had touched ground, said the electronic message from the Cushing police department, and each terminal should pull together an "incident command center." That center reports to a unified command, where Cushing's police and fire chiefs call the shots.
An instant response kicked into gear, as they had planned. On the morning of the drill, Cushing Fire Chief Chris Pixler set up a unified incident command post at a vocational school just outside town, where Cushing's oil terminal workers take pipeline safety classes. Emergency response staging areas took shape around the prospect of injuries and fatalities. An industrial staging area organized top emergency managers from the oil companies.
"At the initial tornado strike, we're already out of resources," Pixler explained.
The picture he paints is chaos.
"We take care of the people first. Then property conservation," he said. "We bring in hazardous materials and monitor the air for H2S [hydrogen sulfide] and anything else from the crude oil."
Under the scenario, the state of Oklahoma's resources for environmental cleanup and monitoring make their way to Cushing. But it could be 24-36 hours before the National Guard mobilizes, Pixler says.
Under these conditions, Pixler said the oil industry should be prepared for a three-day period, at a minimum, during which terminals won't be operating normally.
Pixler, 41, has been fighting fires in the area for 20 years. Issues with communications equipment that he knew about going into the drill remained issues coming out. Under scenarios that ratcheted up the post-disaster chaos and confusion, the tornado knocked out phone, Internet and cable. Hand-held radios aren't as ubiquitous at private companies as it is among emergency personnel.
"You've got a situation like this, and I've taken that all away from you," Pixler said.
Pixler and Cushing's oil terminal operators are awaiting a report from the local firm, Pipeline Regulatory Consultants Inc. (PRC), that the Safety Alliance of Cushing asked to organize the drill. The report is expected to list response strengths and problems, including the need for more layers of communication technology.
"I'm impressed with several of those companies," said PRC Vice President Jeff Lane. "They have emergency response personnel that came in to help set this thing up."
Throughout the day, PRC interjected situations and emergency hurdles that needed to be gamed out.
Suddenly at 11 a.m., an operator's tank capsized, for example. The companies' field centers reported hourly to central command post.
"I would think we are as secure as we could humanly be, but I don't think there's anything that Mother Nature can't prove wrong," said Roberts of the Safety Alliance of Cushing.
"In Moore they had a school collapse," he added. "I guarantee you that on Monday morning, everybody thought it was safe for a tornado."
On the morning of May 20 -- with the drill still fresh in everyone's memory -- a real tornado barreled across the grasslands. Roberts called to check on one of the larger oil storage terminals. They had already stopped transferring petroleum among pipelines and tanks.
"When you start a drill like this, it's mass chaos," he said. "And that's the way a real disaster is."