Power system failure due to natural disaster: lessons learned from Toyota truck plant

Blog Post created by cathylongley Employee on Sep 26, 2018


“Toyota builds for redundancy; I never thought this would happen,” Engineer Ryan Grimes said as he reflected on lessons learned when a natural disaster disrupted operations at a Toyota pickup truck plant in San Antonio, Texas for ten weeks. Grimes is charged with plant planning and provided insight on an unanticipated weather event that challenged business continuity, lead to new partnerships, and resulted in some surprisingly positive operations efficiencies.

In May 2016, a microburst brought intense wind and rain which caused roof drains to close. The steel roof ripped like paper causing leaks that then prompted power problems in the facility. As a result, production halted to a stop. When the elements subsided, the Toyota team needed to find solutions and resources; and, in the process, identified new business approaches.

Speaking to attendees at NFPA’s Conference & Expo in Las Vegas, Grimes offered a snapshot of the car maker’s operations in North America - 14 manufacturing plants, 26 million square feet (~600 acres) under roof, 250+ substations (primary-transformer-secondary) and over 50 miles of busway before detailing the devastation at the plant in Texas.



Despite the top ten Fortune 500 company’s strong preparedness culture, they were not entirely ready for Mother Nature’s wrath or the fallout that ensued in the weeks and months after violent weather hit San Antonio.



Given their lengthy delays in manufacturing and insurance claims that amounted to tens of millions of dollars – Toyota is sharing their experience so that others will benefit and be forthright about their own operational challenges.



Grimes shared the following 13 lessons learned that may help you plan for both the anticipated and the unexpected.

  1. Emergency plans need to be up to date, and include responsibilities. A lack of understanding about roles and direction were obstacles that could have been avoided.
  2. When there’s a roof on the floor no one thinks about electricity. Workers were standing in water with live electrical cable nearby. Look for all hazards, not just the obvious one. Locate and repair existing and potential unsafe conditions with stringent inspection and assessment. Is it safe for all? Could there be additional failures? What is damaged? What are the priorities?
  3. Ironworkers know more than you think. The roof in the Toyota incident was sitting on cable. When the iron worker was told to cut the cable, he realized it was holding up part of the roof. He stopped immediately and informed the project team. 
  4. Supplier relationships are important. Toyota did not have a relationship with a generator company, and spent a great deal of time working on logistics. 
  5. Know your load – not just how much but what kind. Cyclical loads aren’t necessarily the same as others.
  6. Think about cable runs before you run. Planning where to run cable is important. Decide where they should go and how to protect them while they are in place.
  7. Quick isn’t always the best. Long lead items are sometimes important and can save time in the long run.
  8. Sometimes you really can’t get there from here. Restoring a facility or operations back to the original condition may not be the best option.
  9. A good design firm can be invaluable. Partnering with a design firm that has capacity in all disciplines can make all the difference.
  10. Not all cable tests are created equal. Toyota needed to test cable that had the roof sitting on it. They considered partial discharge which was potentially damaging and only allowed for detection of gross/major insulation defects. Tan-Delta was not damaging, and could distinguish between new, medium and strongly aged insulation. Additionally, it has a low power requirement.
  11. Test your work after it’s complete. Look at reoccurrence prevention. Why did this happen? What can we do if it happens again?
  12. What comes in, must come out. Decommission!
  13. Big cranes are fun to watch. Incidents like the one at Toyota’s Texas truck plant require difficult decisions and tasks – and very long hours of working with the same team for weeks on end. You have to look for bright spots, celebrate the wins, and apply learnings to ensure that you are better prepared for business continuity in the future!


Looking to learn more about the steps you can take to optimize safety in the event of a natural disaster? NFPA offers facility emergency preparedness planning training and a course to help develop an electrical safety program based on the 2018 NFPA 70E, as well as a web page devoted to disaster preparedness.


Did you know that NFPA Conference & Expo attendees and NFPA members get full access to ALL the 2018 NFPA Conference & Expo education session audio & video files? Browse the full list of education sessions here. If you're not currently an NFPA member, join today!