Reinforced shelters make oil patch safer in tornado season

Oklahoma City-based Cactus Drilling Co. LLC credits its reinforced safe room for helping 13 employees and contractors survive a direct hit from an EF5 tornado in 2011.
by Adam Wilmoth Published: May 30, 2014
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When Oklahoma City-based Cactus Drilling Co. LLC began converting parts of its drilling rigs into tornado safe rooms, many longtime oilmen thought it was a joke.

“We took a lot of grief from my guys,” said Kathy Willingham, Cactus Drilling’s vice president of human resources. “We were kind of the laughing stock.”

No one was laughing less than a year later when an EF5 twister tore through Cactus Rig 117 near El Reno on May 24, 2011.

“It destroyed a $20 million rig, but all 13 guys on site hid in the change house. They all walked away,” Willingham said. “That change house was the only thing still standing.”

Less than a year earlier, Cactus began reinforcing the change houses and attaching them into the ground with four anchors with 40,000 pounds of pull each.

Since the 2011 storm, Cactus has made a few more changes.

“That rig was near a salvage yard, and a lot of debris from that salvage yard was blown into the change house,” Willingham said. “Now we reinforce the roofs differently.”

The company also has moved the fortified room to the southwest corner of its rigs. Since most tornadoes come from the southwest, the move will make it less likely for the rig to collapse onto shelter, Willingham said.

Over the past three years, other drilling companies and operators have begun adding or requiring tornado safe rooms on their sites.

“Once you see the destruction that happened at 117, you realize the guys out there are not safe,” Willingham said. “Had we not had that, we could have lost 13 guys that day. Those rigs are in the middle of the country with no place to go.”

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by Adam Wilmoth
Energy Editor
Adam Wilmoth returned to The Oklahoman as energy editor in 2012 after working for four years in public relations. He previously spent seven years as a business reporter at The Oklahoman, including five years covering the state's energy sector....
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We are in an area prone to tornadoes. We think it’s important to protect our employees and our service contractors by making the locations safe places to work.”

Steve Chesher,
Vice president of drilling for Continental’s southern division

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