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Fleets Tally Storm Damage, Strive to Resume Deliveries

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By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter
This story appears in the Nov. 5 print edition of Transport Topics.

The trucking industry in the Northeast was scrambling last week in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to assess the damage to fleet facilities and roadways and to determine which customers were ready to accept deliveries.

The storm, which slammed ashore in southern New Jersey Oct. 29, devastated the shoreline there and swamped lower Manhattan under an enormous tidal surge, killed more than 80 residents around the region and brought transportation services in some areas to a standstill for several days.

Numerous rail, subway and motor vehicle tunnels connecting Manhattan to New Jersey and other parts of New York City were still flooded late last week, as Transport Topics went to press.

Meanwhile, economists said the rebuilding efforts from the destruction will likely provide some segments of the trucking industry a boost in demand in coming months.

Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, summed up the situation for TT: “Nobody can get to work. You can’t move around here.”

Roads that were not clogged with debris or filled with downed power lines were seeing excessive traffic in many areas, including New York City.

With the exception of some limited emergency fuel deliveries, the Port of New York and New Jersey remained closed as of Nov. 1 because of heavy damage, adding to the economic woes in the area.

In Moonachie, N.J., just south of the intersection of interstates 95 and 80, a UPS Freight facility was flooded.

“Moonachie is under water; we cannot get in or out,” said UPS Inc. spokesman Chris Bartlett. “From a service perspective, we’re able to work around that with other surrounding centers but, because New Jersey’s been so badly hit, there’s just not much activity there.”

Likewise, the three UPS facilities in New York were operating at 25% capacity because customers, damaged and without power, were not open, he said.

FedEx Corp. said a critical issue was navigating impassable roads and finding customers who could receive shipments.

“Some folks just may not be either home or their business is not open, but we will try to make deliveries the best as we can, in areas that are inaccessible because of . . . downed power lines, transit closures, flooding or storm debris,” said FedEx spokesman Scott Fiedler.

With so little public transit operating in New York City, “Our major challenge is getting people into our locations to man vehicles and sort,” he said.

Tom Connery, chief operating officer for the Shevell Group, headquartered in Elizabeth, N.J., said deliveries were being delayed because “most of the customers are not ready to take it.”

“The other problem is our ability to get around on local roads,” Connery said. “In New Jersey, there’s just so many trees and power lines on the ground. There were railroad cars that came up onto the turnpike, they floated up there with the tidal surge.”

Shevell owns New England Motor Freight, Eastern Freight Ways and Carrier Industries. Connery said Shevell moved its fleet to higher ground before the storm and has generators to power its headquarters.

Although it is located near the port, Shevell cannot do any business there yet because of the storm damage.

“We have a number of customers that have containers that right now we simply can’t pick up,” Connery said.

Con-way Freight said that more than 40 service centers were initially affected by the storm in 11 states because the carrier moved employees and equipment, said Gary Frantz, director of corporate communications for parent Con-way Inc.

By late in the day on Oct. 30, all but two — one each in New Jersey and Long Island — were up and running, Con-way said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Toth. “And if you look at the ramifications — particularly our port being closed, the largest port on the East Coast — 200,000-something people have their jobs related to that port.”

Admiral Kevin Cook, deputy commander of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area, said during a call with reporters and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Oct. 31 that officials still were assessing the damage at the port and did not know when it would reopen.

In an effort to start the recovery process moving, the federal government released $29 million in emergency funding as of Nov. 1 for highway infrastructure. The funding included states from Rhode Island to North Carolina.

The government also eased hours-of-service rules and other regulations for truckers hauling storm-related emergency supplies.

The rebuilding efforts — from roads and bridges to houses and boardwalks by the beach — will mean an uptick in business, said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello.

“Specifically, flatbed carriers typically see a strong boost in construction freight related to rebuilding,” he said. “We fully expect fleets to see an increase in activity in the coming weeks and months during the cleanup and rebuilding phases,” he said.

“Dry-van carriers will likely see a boost in freight from retailers replenishing store shelves that were depleted in the days before the hurricane, but of course these fleets saw a lull in freight in the midAtlantic and Northeast during the last few days,” Costello said.

Deutsche Bank Equity Research Group of North America said its survey of trucking firms in the storm’s aftermath indicated “that it represents a potential positive for the transports.”
But that positive comes after an economic loss in the range of $30 billion to $50 billion, according to IHS Global Insight.

Shevell’s Connery noted how much was lost because of the storm.

“For a two-day period we did about 60% of our normal revenue,” he said.

Connery said the Eastern Freight Ways division runs flatbeds that should see an increase in business, and items like generators and home goods supplies were “already entering our system.”

The problems caused by Sandy were not limited to rain and wind.

In West Virginia, the storm brought extremely heavy snow that blanketed the northeastern part of the state.

“I think everybody’s still assessing,” said Janet Vineyard, president of the West Virginia Trucking Association. “Now the one thing we are worried about is flooding.”

This story appears in the Nov. 5 print edition of Transport Topics.