Storm surge

Sporadic diesel shortages erupted in the days immediately after the hurricane, as at this Toomsuba, Miss., truck stop.

On Aug. 30, the day after Hurricane Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast, trucking’s lifeblood and its circulation system felt the blow.

Tractors lined up for diesel at Interstate fuel stations in Tuscaloosa, Ala., backing up traffic down exit ramps and into the thoroughfare. Shortages left truck stops across the country rationing diesel to 50 gallons per truck. Some truck stops ran empty.

One was the Noble Truck Stop in Livingston, Ala., where Richard Joyce, a company driver for Jimmy L. Rakes of Pilot Mountain, N.C., was stuck Sept. 2 after running out of fuel. Joyce had siphoned 50 gallons of diesel from his refrigerated unit just to get that far.

“I’ve been here since last night,” he said. “Do you know how hard it is to move 50 gallons of fuel in a 2-gallon bucket? Hopefully my boss is on the way with some diesel.”

Those able to find diesel paid record-high prices. The national average spiked 30 cents to $2.90 on Sept. 5 in the weekly U.S. Department of Energy report. That’s $1.02 more than a year ago.

Diesel and gasoline prices retreated slightly by mid-September, thanks to decisions by the United States and governments of other nations to release petroleum from strategic reserves. Nevertheless, with winter approaching and delays in restoring some Gulf oil production, analysts say high diesel prices will remain for a while.

The CB airwaves were full of talk about fuel outages and flaring tempers among truckers in the days following Katrina, said Rick Burton, an owner-operator from Cameron, Mo. “I’m hearing about three-hour waits for diesel, shots ringing out and truckers arming themselves,” Burton said. He planned to quit trucking and work in construction.

Before Katrina, the federal Energy Information Administration estimated that diesel would average $2.29 for 2005. After the hurricane, the forecast jumped to $2.41, a sizable increase considering only four months remained in 2005.

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If the winter is unusually brutal and U.S. diesel-grade sulphur stocks remain where they are the demand could drive prices beyond $3 a gallon, says Jake Bournazian, a U.S. Energy Information Administration economist. He predicted prices would retreat by late September, but remain volatile, with 40 cents per gallon swings during the next six months.

Craig Pirrong, director of the Global Energy Management Institute at the University of Houston, agrees: “There’s still a lot of uncertainty to be resolved.”

Mark Derks of T-Chek Systems notes that the American Trucking Associations is collecting input from drivers and may use that information to request an energy relief bill. ATA also took action in the first week after the hurricane when President Bill Graves asked the nation’s governors to show leniency because of the fuel shortages: “We urge you to instruct your weight enforcement personnel to give trucks a minimal weight tolerance so that drivers do not have to make the difficult choice between getting an overweight citation and risking running out of fuel.”

Some government officials tried to curb prices. In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue exempted consumers from the state motor fuel tax through the end of September. Missouri, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Wisconsin were among other states considering similar measures.

Attorneys general in 41 states were investigating price hikes, though their main focus was on gasoline. Additionally, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee began an investigation Sept. 7 into Katrina’s impact on the energy market.

The soaring fuel prices of recent months have prompted only limited owner-operator group protests. Two weeks after Katrina hit, truckers stopped their rigs on the shoulder of the Trans-Canadian Highway, but resumed rolling after Royal Canadian Mounted Police told them to leave.

Earlier, 200 members of the Northwest Log Truckers Co-Op parked their trucks Aug. 10 to protest a fuel tax and high prices in Washington. The same day, 652 owner-operators roared bobtail from Hialeah, Fla., to deliver a letter complaining about the lack of a mandatory fuel surcharge to a Miami city commissioner.

Louisiana independent Bob Fezekas had called for a Sept. 21-23 shutdown via his website, But he suspended the action after Katrina, urging readers to lobby for a mandatory fuel surcharge bill and a bill to exempt owner-operators from antitrust law.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, says he expects no major attempt to organize a nationwide U.S. fuel-price shutdown, nor any other solution.

“There doesn’t seem to be any relief on the horizon,” he says.

Many trucking industry companies were quick to provide money, equipment and labor to assist in the Katrina relief effort. Here are some of the earliest and largest offers of aid:

  • UNITED PARCEL SERVICE donated up to $1.25 million in cash and in-kind services.
  • BRIDGESTONE AMERICAS HOLDING donated $1 million.
  • HEARTLAND EXPRESS donated $1 million.
  • PACCAR, parent company of Kenworth and Peterbilt, donated $1 million.
  • PETERBILT and KENWORTH each donated a new dump truck.
  • GREAT DANE TRAILERS loaned 10 reefers.
  • CONTINENTAL EXPRESS donated and delivered three 53-foot trailers filled with water, food and blankets.
  • INTERNATIONAL TRUCK AND ENGINE made available 10 dump trucks, five water tankers and its facility in Shreveport, La., as a logistics center.
  • THE FINANCE ARMS of most, if not all, truck makers offered payment extension and deferral programs to customers affected by the hurricane.