Trucks at Work
When disaster strikes

When disaster strikes

In the aftermath of storms, the transportation industry is always strained, not only with assessing the physical damage to their own facilities, but in dealing with customers whose freight had been damaged or delivery delayed.” -Lawrence J. Roberts, transportation attorney

Hurricane Ike left one hell of a mess behind, didn‘t it? Though the storm surge thankfully only reached 15 feet - not the 25 foot level everyone feared - its winds and heavy rains socked the gulf coast of Texas with a massive roundhouse punch, practically flattening Galveston and causing an estimated $12 billion in damage.

The repercussions of Ike‘s fury are already being felt nationwide as gasoline prices jumped nearly 18 cents per gallon over the last few days, driving the average cost per gallon up over $3.80. This after the price of oil actually DROPPED to below $96 per barrel in special trading this weekend. One major reason for this dichotomy is that 42% of the oil refinery capacity in the U.S. is located (you guessed it!) right in the gulf coast area Ike hit. So with some eight out of 14 refineries in Texas alone shutting down ahead of the storm - and with post-hurricane damage assessments not yet completed - it‘s no wonder fuel prices are spiking.


[The ire of Ike. Photo courtesy of NOAA.]

Needless to say, it‘s already been a rough hurricane season. While Ike may yet rank as the third costliest hurricane to strike the U.S. (Katrina is number one while Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in 1992, claims second place), don‘t forget about Hurricane Gustav (which whacked New Orleans back in August) nor Tropical Storm Hanna (which hit North Carolina and drenched the east coast). They also left a trail of expensive damage in their respective wakes, too.

So from all of these natural catastrophes, what can truckers learn? What are the lessons left for trucking in the wake of such calamities?

Lawrence J. Roberts, a 20-year veteran transportation lawyer, penned a shot article about this very subject back in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina‘s nasty visit to New Orleans. He contended - and rightly so - that the immediate effects of such storms are no surprise to those familiar with the disruption of business inherent with any natural disaster.

“Traffic was diverted and roads were closed. The flow of goods and services was disrupted, because deliveries could not be made to hurricane ravaged areas,” Roberts said. “Storage facilities were destroyed, and employees were pulled away to take care of their own property and families.”


[What Ike's wrath did to Texas. Photo courtesy of CBC News, Canada.]

There is, however, a bright spot - if it can be called that - for truckers in particular when disasters like these strike. “During post-storm clean-up efforts, sectors of the transportation industry enjoyed an immediate surge in business,” he said. “As rebuilding efforts began, the need for durable goods and building materials helped us get back on track [after Katrina]. Some trucking companies handled FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] loads, while others began transporting generators, tools, and household goods as the need arose.”

One thing Roberts stressed, though, is familiar to anyone who ever served in the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. Without preparation, any business or individual is going to be left in dire straits when storms of any magnitude - much less one like Ike - hit their area.

“We must prepare now for future natural disasters, to minimize the impact on our facilities, employees, and customers,” Roberts stressed. “In my years representing transportation businesses throughout North America, my clients and I have seen how hurricanes affect our livelihoods.”

With that in mind, he offers some suggestions on how to minimize the impact such storms can deliver:

Document your work. Document whatever steps you take to safeguard shipments and protect cargo from acts of God. If you have done everything you can to shield freight from natural disasters, you will have a much better chance of minimizing your exposure in the legal arena. In other words, be smart about it, and document how smart you were.

Back up your computer system. Before hurricane season, make sure your computers are backed up, preferably off site, and the programs to restore your business data are current. Also, practice restoring your system prior to the start of hurricane season. After the fact is not the time to test.

Set up an employee call network. Get employee phone and cell numbers and break your workforce into groups. If there is a natural disaster, have one person in charge of calling everyone in their group, then reporting back to management.

Have adequate generator capacity. Make sure you have a generator that can run your facility before a disaster strikes. Needless to say, a reliable fuel source is a must. Set it up and test it before hurricane season begins.

Stockpile supplies. Store non-perishable food items and other essentials that may be needed after a storm, to create an environment where employees will want to come to work. If you take care of your employees after a disaster, they will take care of you.

Train dispatchers on emergency procedures. Ensure that dispatchers have adequate notice to get employees and freight off the road and to a safe shelter as a storm approaches.

Secure your facility. Take basic precautions to protect your facilities and your customers‘ cargo. Bring freight inside a facility to protect it from inclement weather, or route shipments away from a terminal that is in the path of bad weather.

Plan for after the storm. Designate a team to assess damages and take stock of what‘s happened after the danger has passed.

There are other issues, too, such as making sure your trucks, cargo, and (most critical of all) drivers are safe wherever they gat dispatched to in a disaster area. Vince Pearce, national response program manager for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) addressed issues like this at a special “Considerations of Freight in Disaster Planning” meeting held in December 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.


[Ike left a lot of devastation behind. Photo courtesy of CBC News, Canada.]

“Security is another challenge,” he said in his speech three years ago. “There was localized lawlessness after Katrina passed through Louisiana. Haulers of commodities had to think about the safety of personnel and pay loads. It may not just be the bad guys that represent that threat. In fact, local officials may also appropriate these federally provided assets without the consultation of the providers and yet again we are responsible for our employees and need to know where they are and that they're in safe condition. Security is an issue both en route and at the destination. If you're moving a scarce commodity, for example if you were moving fuel oil during the height of the shortages and price hikes are common, then that's the thing that's highly desirable in the disaster area.”

Regulatory concerns also came up as well, Pearce noted. “There needs to be appropriate consideration of what regulations can be relaxed so that disaster response can proceed at a deliberate pace,” he said. “This is not a one-entity-controlled all environment. We have federal, state and local regulations that we have to deal with. One of challenges that we face in the federal regulatory environment is hours of operation and that‘s one we had to be very aware of.”

Likewise, Pearce said overloads may be appropriate in the transportation structure, as obviously the more goods you can get in the disaster zone the faster, the more relief you can provide to the disaster victims. “Use of untaxed fuel may also be necessary,” he added. “We used a fair amount of fuel provided by the Department of Defense and provided in some cases fuel that was potentially direct from refinery stores to keep both our economy going and to keep our responders able to carry out their mission in the disaster zone.”

One of the things not always thought of is that waivers may be needed far outside of disaster zone, said Pearce. “Our first source of oversize loads came from Cumberland, Maryland. It was not a disaster zone, but a place where we needed help to get the house trailers and portable structures down in the disaster zone,” he explained. “Another unique thing with Katrina is that the waiver periods went on much longer than the typical month that we have dealt with historically for hurricanes.”

Given the situations that may be faced, knowing that a load is a disaster relief load becomes pretty important. “During Katrina we did something pretty simple and it worked pretty well. A FEMA region office created a letter with the FEMA logo and appropriate text saying, ‘Hey, the folks operating this vehicle are carrying a genuine disaster response load. Give them due consideration,‘” noted Pearce. “You‘ve got to remember that these relief loads get hauled by the private sector - it‘s not like they‘re carrying military ID or pre-issued FEMA ID or something like that. These are trucking firms from all over the nation and we need to be able to give them something so that local law enforcement, fuel providers and so forth recognize the critical mission they‘re on.”

Finally, there‘s the issue of freight delays. “Delays in the disaster zone are pretty much standard operating procedure,” Pearce stressed. “One of the sources is that the logistics process itself is not an exact science. Understanding the needs and typing of the needs may lead to pretty serious backups. Similarly it‘s not just the logisticians that are charged with this. The elected officials will telephone and make their will known and sometimes we end up with significant amount of resource at least temporarily greater than demand.”

He added that when you get a queue potentially miles long in the staging area or moving down into a distribution point, you may get delays resulting simply from processing time. “There may also be routing problems because of debris or damage to the infrastructure or a lack of communications,” Pearce said. “Flexibility is the key whether it‘s to delays, or permitting or whatever understanding of how movement of the disaster response works and realizing that deadlines are going to be important, but we‘re going to be faced with many challenges. Understanding the process is essential and whatever can be done to make communication easier, whether it‘s two-way pagers or Blackberries or a couple of different carriers on cell phones, whatever.”

The challenge, he said, is getting word to the drivers that the route or designation may need to be changed if a facility is no longer available or whatever. “So creating the flexibility, working in a way that's flexible in dealing with the demands and understanding they are part of the way of life is really important to success,” Pearce stressed.

Indeed, this is all good information. Maybe not of much help now, as recovery operations post-Ike are already in full swing, but definitely something to think about before the next storm hits.