Allison Drowns Gulf Coast Deliveries

Aug. 1, 2001
If Noah were a truck driver, he would have felt at home with Tropical Storm Allison. It turned the freeways and downtown streets of Houston, Texas, into

If Noah were a truck driver, he would have felt at home with Tropical Storm Allison. It turned the freeways and downtown streets of Houston, Texas, into rivers on the weekend of June 8-10, 2001, hampering distribution efforts for those days. The storm is blamed for 22 deaths and $5 billion in total damage.

Of course, Noah was warned before the Great Flood. Truck drivers unlucky enough to be driving in or through Houston when Allison hit, were taken by surprise. Trapped in traffic with water rising around them, many climbed out of their tractors and swam to the roadside. One driver who couldn't swim climbed atop the truck's air deflector and awaited rescue.

According to the Associated Press, an estimated 50,000 cars and trucks took on water during the flooding. Damage ranged from wet floorboards to total destruction. Houstonians are used to a lot of rain. However, they were not prepared for the 20-plus inches that fell within a 12-hour period starting Friday evening. This was in addition to heavy rain earlier in the week when Allison circled the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana. By the end of the storm, some areas of Houston had received more than 35 inches of rain.

Roads West, a refrigerated carrier based in Phoenix, Arizona, with dedicated operations in Texas, had three trucks extensively damaged by the flood. Fortunately, the drivers weren't hurt, said Casey Hughes, Roads West president. Two tractors were totaled and the other, parked at a dock, required an engine overhaul. The trailers were cleaned out and repaired. But a load of rice from Greta, Louisiana, to Temple, Texas, was destroyed.

“Two of our drivers were stuck in traffic early Saturday on Interstate 10 just inside Houston's inner freeway loop,” Hughes said. “They had to swim to safety. Then they assisted other motorists to safety. From newspaper photos, it appears that only big rigs were caught in the flood. But many cars were lost in the same area, completely submerged under high water.”

One Roads West tractor was from the local dedicated supermarket fleet. The other was from Phoenix on its way to a Texas Wal-Mart. An accident stopped traffic. “All the drivers could do was watch the water rise,” he said. “After the water subsided, we had the tractors towed. They were less than six months old and had to be replaced.

“Our drivers experienced initial difficulties Saturday morning reporting for their load departure,” Hughes said. “However, we were back on schedule within a matter of hours, despite the massive flood conditions. City buses were not running. The Houston Chronicle was not delivering.”

Produce Service Disrupted

The storm disrupted service at the Houston Produce Market and the Houston Farmers Market, home to many produce distributors.

“We're open seven days a week,” said Ryan Wolverton, sales manager of the Houston Avocado Company in the Farmers Market. “When the storm hit Friday night, our night-shift loaders were stuck here. We had to unload everything and put it back in the coolers. Drivers were unable to make it to work on Saturday.”

The same thing happened at the Produce Market, said Rich De Thomas of Coosemans Houston Inc. Produce Row is south of downtown. The main entrance often is inaccessible in heavy rain. However, there is a back entrance.

“I couldn't drive up the back way in my Dodge Ram truck,” De Thomas said. “Water was eight feet high on the back roads.”

Coosemans' straight truck fleet was not damaged, De Thomas said. It runs fewer routes on weekends. However, one driver who delivers to San Antonio and Austin, Texas, was unable to get to work on Saturday. “All of Produce Row had service problems,” he said. “Companies with restaurant routes loaded trucks Friday night but couldn't get them out.”

Like the other Houston produce companies, Schoenmann Produce Company did not make deliveries on Saturday. Schoenmann recently moved from Produce Row, said G D “Jerry” Ferrell Sr, vice-president and general manager. “We lost no equipment in the storm,” he said. “However, some workers lost their homes. We came back to work, a day late and a dollar short.”

Truck Repair Increase

Truck repairs increased significantly the week after the flood. Many of the vehicles were damaged while parked in flooded areas. For example, HaulMark Trucking Inc, a Houston-based refrigerated fleet, had tractors flooded up to the axles, Mark Branson, HaulMark president, said. “We didn't lose any rigs, but we had to change oil in the drive axles,” he said.

The volume of tractor and trailer repairs performed by the local PacLease franchise increased about 25%, said Victor Chavez, maintenance manager of Rush Truck Leasing. “Many of our customers were lucky and avoided flood damage,” he said. “It depended on where the rigs were parked.”

PacLease also provided rental vehicles to the Red Cross at a preferred rate, said Jim Smith, general manager of Rush Truck Leasing.

Flood damage begins after the water rises about three feet, Chavez said. Axles and transmissions are the first components damaged. Water seeps under the breather caps. Engines flood in deeper water. Air intakes and oil-fill tubes let water into the crankcase and cylinders.

“We also cleaned out a lot of trailer axle hubs, draining flood water and replacing oil,” Chavez said.

Storm Lingered

Tropical Storm Allison may have caught people by surprise because it didn't have the strong winds and storm surge of a hurricane, said Andrew Odins, a graduate student and assistant to John Nielsen-Gammon, state climatologist at the department of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University. “The eye of the storm was near Port Arthur and Beaumont, Texas; it just sat there and dumped a lot of rain,” he said.

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