Panic at the pump

Truckers face high prices, long lines and shortages.

Special Report: In Katrina’s Wake
Immediately after Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge, torrential rains and high winds cut a deadly swath across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, it quickly became apparent that its destructive powers were more far-reaching than any natural disaster this country has experienced in the modern era.

For the trucking industry, immediate diesel price hikes amid an already volatile oil climate and unprecedented fuel shortages greatly tested drivers’ ability to respond to the disaster areas. Factored into the chaos were flooded terminals, closed ports and roads and missing trucks. Some drivers talked about quitting the industry while others from storm-affected areas wondered how their families fared. Carriers braced their bottom lines as fuel prices spiked.

Still, truckers and fleets have done a remarkable job of doing what is expected of them – delivering relief and keeping the wheels of commerce moving. Thousands of trucks headed for the region brimming with water, food, generators and the supplies necessary to save life and sustain it. Trucking companies helped reunite drivers with families, and some truckers even turned their sleepers into shelters for victims of the storm.

The following pages of this special report chronicle the uncertainty of the first few days after Hurricane Katrina, as Truckers News editors fanned out to the devastated area to highlight the tensions, tragedies and triumphs of American truckers in a time of crisis.

By Sept. 2, owner-operator Guadalupe Enriquez was fed up and out of money. Along with dozens of his fellow drivers, Enriquez was waiting in line for a few gallons of diesel at the Queen City Truck Stop in Meridian, Miss. – enough fuel to make it home to Texas so he could park his truck and get out of the business.

Evidence of Hurricane Katrina – a devastating storm that laid waste to communities from New Orleans east to Bayou La Batre, Ala., and north to Hattiesburg, Miss. – was everywhere. Downed billboards. Desperate refugees. Frustrated truckers. Relief workers. The National Guard.

“Tempers are flaring; everyone’s worried about fuel prices and now availability. It’s getting ugly out there,” Enriquez said. “I had to use my last hundred bucks to pay for this fuel. And consider myself lucky to have found any at all. Good riddance. I’m tired and this is ridiculous.”

Enriquez’s frustration was understandable. For thousands of truck drivers, crossing the disaster area in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was difficult. Many truckstops in Mississippi and Alabama ran out of fuel. Water and food were also in short supply in the days following the storm. And four days after Katrina, unsubstantiated rumors of violence at truckstops swirled.

As worrisome as the first week after Katrina was, the maelstrom facing the trucking industry may just be getting started. As far north as Ohio, retail diesel prices climbed above $3 a gallon and concerns about the industry’s ability to cope with high prices bubbled to the surface.

By Sept 6 – the Tuesday after Labor Day and the day fuel traditionally dips after the summer driving season – the federal government said diesel prices were up more than 30 cents over the previous week. Some owner-operators parked their trucks and fleets faced disruptions along lanes heavily affected by the storm. The trucking industry was scrambling to find fuel and a way to pay for it.

With the fall buildup of heating oil just around the corner, even oil industry analysts worried about the supply of diesel for the coming months.

“While the main problem has been gasoline outages, we could see distillates (diesel and heating oil) becoming a problem late in the year,” reported Simons Petroleum in its Sept. 6 fuel update. “It is likely the production focus for the next several weeks will be on replenishing the gasoline supplies. If this is indeed the case, we could see distillate inventories well below normal by the end of the year.”

Initial supply issues, however, were expected to subside quickly as governments from the United States to Japan dipped into reserve oil stocks and refining capacity and pipelines came back online. In fact, two major fuel pipelines that run through Louisiana to the Northeast and deliver hundreds of millions of gallons of gasoline, diesel and other petroleum products, were back up a week after the storm. Also, nine refineries damaged or idled by the storm were up and running again.

But even as tanker trucks began to fill up some depleted truckstops, longer term questions remained. With nearly 10 percent of U.S. oil production limited by the storm and weeks of refining capacity lost, how will diesel prices be affected long term?

Craig Pirrong, director of the Global Energy Management Institute at the University of Houston, says diesel shortages should be a relatively short phenomenon. High prices are another story.

“The gasoline market is already anticipating a drop in prices,” Pirrong said. “Future trading has October and November deliveries substantially lower than the current price.” But diesel prices, which set a 50-year inflation-adjusted record the week after the storm, may not fall as quickly. Blame heating oil stocks, which are below normal and must be built back up before winter. “It’s likely that diesel buyers won’t see as much of a benefit as gasoline buyers.”

After the storm, the U.S. Department of Energy adjusted upward its outlook for the average 2005 price of diesel. It now expects drivers to pay an average of $2.41 for the year, up 12 cents from previous estimates. If that prediction holds true, the industry will spend $85 billion on fuel in 2005, up $23 billion from 2004, according to the American Trucking Associations. For its part, ATA asked the Department of Energy to more frequently report increases in diesel prices so that trucking companies could more accurately price freight.

The truckstop industry said member stops in the storm-affected area were bringing in tankers from hundreds of miles away to meet demand and keep trucks running. And shipping and oil industry officials were making progress in their efforts to repair and reopen facilities in hard-hit Louisiana and Mississippi.

Desperation in Mississippi
The picture was bleak during the first few days after the storm. In Mississippi, where Katrina lashed the southern half of the state with high winds and water, truckers had a hard go of it. Many searched for enough diesel to get out of the state. They stopped, for example, at the TravelCenters of America truckstop east of Meridian, Miss. Four days after the storm, nerves frayed, truckers were on edge and motorists were desperate. Even though the truckstop was 200 miles from flooded New Orleans, there was no power, no water and – most importantly – no fuel.

Still, employees – many of whom rode out the Category 4 hurricane at the truckstop – were making the best of the difficult situation. Octavia Truman slapped thawing pork chops on a gas grill outside the open restaurant doors. Truckers, Katrina refugees and power company personnel watched and waited for a hot-cooked meal – the first many had in four days.

Truman said she set up the grill to cook hamburgers, pork chops and steaks – the contents of the Country Pride Restaurant freezer – before they spoiled. For those visitors with money, Truman charged $3 for a hamburger and gave away food to travelers who had nothing.

“My boy’s out there hauling food right now,” Truman says. “My son’s a truck driver. I’m up here helping truckers for him.”

Twenty miles east in Livingston, Ala., truckers found little relief. The bathrooms worked and the lights were on at the Noble Truck Stop, but there was no diesel. “We’ve been out of fuel for four days,” said Booker Cooke, owner of the truckstop. “It’s hurting our business. People are stopping for food and water and to take showers, but we’ve got no fuel.”

Rick Burton, an owner-operator from Cameron, Mo., said the CB airwaves were full of talk about fuel outages, flared tempers and panic among truckers. “I’m hearing about 3-hour waits for diesel, shots ringing out and truckers arming themselves,” Burton said. For Burton the situation and the price of fuel were enough. He was on his last load, planning to park his truck once he reached home and work in the construction industry.

Out front, a bus of refugees off-loaded briefly for bathroom breaks. Another bus loaded with gamblers pulled up – a brief respite before heading to casinos in Philadelphia, Miss.

Back at the fuel counter, Richard Joyce, a company driver, waited for word about fuel. On a trip home from Houston to North Carolina with a load of rice, Joyce was empty. His twin 150-gallon diesel tanks ran dry in Jackson, but he was able to siphon fuel from his refrigerated unit into a two-gallon bucket, transferring diesel to his truck. It took 25 trips to move enough fuel to get to Livingston. He hoped his boss would send a truck with fuel. “This is crazy,” he said.

Improving supplies
To meet demand, some truckstop operators were trucking in diesel and gasoline from hundreds of miles away. NATSO, an organization that represents the truckstop and travel plaza industry, said the crisis would ease, although some fuel scarcity could continue in the areas affected directly by the storm. The group successfully lobbied the Internal Revenue Service to allow truckstops to sell off-road or dyed-diesel for highway use to help ease shortages.

The Environmental Protection Agency also waived strict fuel standards nationally to help alleviate supply concerns. Still, motorists and truckers lined up for more than a mile at some truckstops and gas stations hoping to top off or fill containers, few approved for the transportation of gasoline. Cassell Harris, an owner-operator from Memphis, Tenn., pulled out his last $100 for fuel at the Queen City Truck Stop along I-59/20. “I’m out of money, out of fuel and going to park my truck for a few weeks until the fuel situation settles back down,” Harris said. He said he’s been fighting fuel prices for a long time and the effects of Hurricane Katrina are the last straw. “I’m tired, outraged over the prices and the lack of availability. I’ve had enough.”

Across the parking lot, David Jordan sat in his daycab with a full load of gasoline – protected by a police escort – in the tanker behind him. He’d been working nonstop to meet the needs of truckstops and gas stations. Motorists constantly asked him, “Where are you going?” and would follow him to his destination. Jordan was concerned about the panic he said is responsible for the extreme shortages motorists and truckers experienced.

“If people would just live normally and fill up like they always do, some of this can settle down,” he said.

A few blocks away, tanker trucks pulled in and out of Meridian’s fuel depot. The large, round tanks were slowly emptying. The fuel pipeline that feeds them was running under capacity because of power outages caused by Hurricane Katrina.

In Louisiana, some terminals and trucking companies were out of business – at least temporarily. “Unfortunately, we are still in rescue phase,” said Cathy Gautreaux with the Louisiana Motor Truck Association. “It appears that we may soon be moving into the recovery phase of the operation, which will give us a better opportunity to determine the damage and impact to the trucking industry.”

Most trucking companies in the New Orleans area had not returned to their terminals due to flooding, Gautreaux said. Others in Jefferson Parish were able to return long enough to get their trucks out, and several trucking companies were establishing terminal operations in Baton Rouge or in other areas for the interim. “It’s still too early to tell,” when operations will return to normal, Gautreaux said.

Covenant Makes Life Easier for Storm-affected Employees
Jeff Simpkins was in Baltimore when Hurricane Katrina blew through his Biloxi, Miss., home, flinging the house and its contents into the Gulf of Mexico.

With no communications from the hurricane-ravaged area, the company driver for Covenant Transport, Chattanooga, Tenn., had no idea if his mother was dead or alive. Simpkins had only been driving for Covenant for three months and wasn’t sure what to do.

Then he got the phone call he’d been waiting for. Debbie Carroll, Covenant’s family advocate, called him with good news: Simpkins’ mother had telephoned the company headquarters to say she was alive and well.

“My home is gone, but my mother is safe. That’s all that matters,” Simkins said.

Carroll has handled a flood of panicked callers looking for information about family members and from employees in every kind of dire situation.

The company’s “benevolence fund” was set up for just these kinds of situations. Employees choose to join by donating a dollar a week, which is deducted from their check. That money then goes for emergency or catastrophic help such as the damage and destruction wrought by Katrina. Carroll’s job isn’t just distributing money, though.

“I’m there for our drivers,” she said. “I try to help them by solving problems and sometimes just listening to them.”

“I can’t see ever driving for anyone else,” Simpkins said. “I just can’t imagine it after all this.”

He can’t get back into his neighborhood yet, but he doesn’t expect to find anything left when he does. “My bed is probably floating in the Gulf,” Simpkins said.

But his mother is alive, he has his job and he feels good about the company he’s driving for. “It could be a whole lot worse,” he said.

Truckers to the Rescue
Amidst the ruin, desperation and shortages Hurricane Katrina left in her wake, stories of hope continue to emerge. In the immediate aftermath, the trucking industry’s response was immense. The Department of Transportation secured more than 1,639 trucks to support the delivery of more than 3,731 truckloads of goods, including more than 25 million meals ready to eat, 31 million liters of water, 56,400 tarps, more than 19 million pounds of ice and 215,000 blankets.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency did its part also, contracting hundreds of power units and trailers to bring in supplies. While some trucks brought relief supplies, others pulled refrigerated units to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast to serve the grim task of recovering and preserving bodies.

NATSO-member truckstops donated fuel to the American Red Cross. In 2004, truckstop operators gave more than 45,000 gallons of free fuel to help relief efforts after three hurricanes hit Florida. The amount for Katrina will likely be much higher, a NATSO spokeswoman said.

Carriers and drivers lent their support to the effort as well. Team drivers Curtis Story and Todd Walz of Maysville, Ky., had just finished repairing their truck when they received a call from Emergency Disaster Services. The company needed a big rig to haul a load to Gulfport, Miss. The two signed up immediately and left with a load of portable showers. They were on their second load – this time cots – within a week of when the storm hit.

“I lost my house in Hurricane Andrew,” Walz says. Until Katrina, Andrew was the most destructive and expensive hurricane in U.S. history. “This is my opportunity to pay them back for helping me. We waited with Andrew for three days without any kind of help. I know how desperate we got. We didn’t even get to Gulfport [Miss.] until the fourth day. They really needed help in Gulfport.”

One WTI driver from southern Mississippi was accommodating his mother and an elderly friend – both on oxygen – in his sleeper until other arrangements could be made, the company said.

Schneider National, a company that does not typically haul fuel, pulled tankers to the Port of New Orleans to offload diesel from a ship moored there. The company said six of its bulk drivers from the area were driving the trucks. “All we could tell them was bring water and clean socks, and be prepared to be out for up to two weeks. Their response: ‘Sign me up,'” said Schneider National spokeswoman Janet Bonkowski.

At Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., more than 500 trucks lined up in the hot sun to carry water, ice, meals-ready-to-eat and generators into hard-hit areas. Drivers for LandStar and U.S. Xpress, contract carriers for FEMA, waited to be deployed. For Laurie and John Jones, owner-operators from Crawfordville, Ga., being part of a relief effort was nothing new.

The two are volunteers with their local fire department and the American Red Cross. John hauled relief supplies to Florida in 2004 after it was hit by three major hurricanes, and Laurie was an EMA official in her county for six years and helped set up shelters for storm refugees.

“It’s a great feeling to be able to help,” John says. “Who could not help somebody who is in need?” Still, the devastation is startling. “We’ve never seen anything like this. As soon as we can get in, the better,” Laurie says.

The couple hauled a load of generators to another staging area and were waiting to haul water or ice farther in. They were not alone. Across the country, carriers as big as Schneider National and Wal-Mart and as small as single-truck operators offered to haul loads of food, clothing and water to devastated areas. Others hauled the tools of repair.

Eddie Edwards, a company driver for Cajun Constructors, Inc. based in Baton Rouge, La., was headed south on I-59/20 hauling heavy equipment trailers for the Department of Energy. His company was delivering construction supplies in an effort to rebuild the levees in New Orleans and get power plants along the Gulf Coast running.

“The Department of Energy asked for all our trucks,” Edwards says. “This work is really amazing.” The trailers will be used for hauling heavy equipment, which can weigh more than 200,000 pounds, into the devastated areas. “We just got through rebuilding Gulf Shores, Ala., after Hurricane Ivan,” he said.

Now the company is hauling 35,000-pound pilings to I-610 near Lake Pontchartrain for the U.S. Corps of Engineers. With luck, the pilings will help fix the levee, and New Orleans can continue to recover.

How long before the trucking industry – beset by fuel shortages and high prices – can recover from Katrina is still up in the air. As destructive and large as the storm was, it may ultimately pale in comparison to the storm it left behind.
Sean Kelley, Carolyn Magner, Lance Orr and Rachel Telehany contributed to this report.

Donations Pour In
As with the Sept. 11 attacks, the trucking industry responded immediately with an outpouring of goodwill. Here are some of the earliest donations of money or equipment:

  • Russell Gerdin, president and CEO of Heartland Express, announced Sept. 2 his $1 million donation to the American Red Cross to aid Hurricane Katrina victims.
  • The American Trucking Associations is heading up a donations drive of its members.
  • Bridgestone Global Group of Companies donated more than $1 million to the American Red Cross, while Bridgestone Americas donated $100,000 to the American Red Cross. The company also organized a team member fund-raising program encouraging employees to donate independently to the cause.
  • The UPS Foundation donated $1,250,000 toward Katrina relief efforts and is also organizing an effort to aid UPS employees and their families. The donation includes $500,000 in cash and up to $750,000 of in-kind services including medical and health-related items. The company also sent tractor-trailers loaded with bottled water to hurricane evacuees in Mississippi.
  • International delivery and logistics company DHL donated up to $500,000 of in-kind shipping services toward relief efforts in Alabama, Mississippi and Lousiana. It also planned to match $100,000 in donations from its employees.
  • PACCAR, parent company of Kenworth and Peterbilt, gave $1 million to the American Red Cross.
  • The International Truck and Engine Company offered a facility in Louisiana as a staging area for relief supplies and 10 dump trucks to deliver supplies and remove debris. It also offered five water tankers to transport potable water.
  • Interstate Connections began accepting Red Cross donations at its stores at truckstops across the country.
  • Safety Vision, a mobile video surveillance provider, was matching donations its employees made and set up a donation drop-off point at its Houston headquarters.
  • Industry association and technology provider SMC3 was matching up to $10,000 in employee contributions.
  • will contribute 15 percent of its fee to the Red Cross each time someone orders a Practitioner Representation filing online.