After the storm

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Weather always seems like an excuse in cement company financial reports. It seems that it can pop up when a producer has nothing else to blame for its poor performance. Except, of course, when there has actually been some bad weather. With this in mind the weather is likely to have a rather larger presence in the next set of results for companies in the Caribbean and Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The storm tore across the region in a rough north-western bearing, reaching Category Five hurricane status on the Saffir–Simpson scale with sustained winds of over 252km/hr. It caused loss of life and mass destruction to property and infrastructure.

Bottom lines flutter in the wind as construction markets upend in the wake of the weather. Yet cement companies have a more direct relationship with extreme weather events. Cement plants themselves are large industrial sites with staff and equipment that are vulnerable to the elements. This is covered by a company’s resilience strategy but it can include things like reducing non-essential staff levels, shutting down production and securing a site. Cemex USA, for example, set up telephone lines to help employees in need of assistance for both Hurricane Harvey in Texas in late August 2017 and Irma this week. Titan America shut down its Florida operations over the weekend ahead of Irma and then started reopening them on 12 September 2017.

To look at one facet of preparing a cement plant shutting a clinker kiln down with adequate notice, like for a maintenance period, is one thing. Yet doing it in an emergency is an entirely different proposition as the kiln generally needs time to cool down. Global Cement discovered what happens when a kiln is simply stopped when it visited the Cemex South Ferriby plant in the UK. The plant suffered a complete electrical outage following a tidal surge at the site. A 22m-long section of one of the kiln shells had to be replaced because it had been distorted by the sudden cooling.

Secondly, the concrete that cement is used to make plays a key role in what the Portland Cement Association (PCA) and others call resilient construction. Typically concrete structures and buildings survive extreme weather events better than other weaker building materials. Although a wide range of other factors such as building design, foundations and roofing construction are also important. Notably, much of the footage that emerged during the storm in Florida was shot from concrete buildings. As Cary Cohrs, former chairman of the PCA put it: "The greenest building is the one still standing." At the time of this push 2013 Cohrs and the PCA were lobbying to strengthen US building codes and standards. It is likely that the association will renew its efforts in the wake of Irma.

With the winds slackening, the clean up operation starts. Cemex USA’s Houston Terminal said it had reopened for business after Harvey despite being two feet under water a week earlier. As reports start to emerge about the scale of the devastation in the region following Hurricane Irma the insured losses have been estimated at US$20 – 65bn by analysts quoted by the Financial Times. Two things are certain though. One, bad weather is likely to make an appearance in the third quarter financial reports and, two, the rebuilding is going to need lots of cement.

Last modified on 13 September 2017


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