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Trucking comes to the relief during hurricanes

This story was originally published on August 26, 2017, but has been updated for the 2022 hurricane season.

Nineteen years ago, I got caught in middle of hurricane storm. But it wasn’t the high winds and water that I faced, it was the surge of truckloads that my startup on-demand trucking division received.

My small but agile team of 11 made up the on-demand provider of US Xpress, known as Xpress Direct. We were set up to handle the spot on-demand capacity needs for major shippers, brokers, and airfreight forwarders for the market. Our promise was that we would provide a customer with as much capacity as they wanted in any major market within six hours.

We were doing a couple hundred truckloads a week and had just passed a million in gross revenue a month when Hurricane Isabel ended up hitting the Virginia coast in 2003. It was a category three, but Virginia was unprepared for such a major storm. It ended up the costliest and deadliest hurricane of that year.

President George W. Bush was pressuring the federal government to use private contractors for disaster relief services and supplies and this was the first major test.

Stocking up on Pop-Tarts

Over the course of the week before the storm, we were providing on-demand relief supplies, including bottled water, power generators, batteries, gas cans, flashlights, Pop-Tarts (they are number one food consumed during a hurricane, by the way), and other items used to prepare a state for a hurricane. The business was hectic, but we were prepared for a large influx of last-minute orders. After all, we were the on-demand division and were created for such a need.

The storm hit on a Saturday and my team, who had been working 20 hours a day for the past week, took the day off and were at home for a much deserved rest. What we were underprepared for was what happened next.   

Customers demanded every truck on the Eastern seaboard

It was Sunday morning and the hurricane had made landfall and quite a large mess in its wake. I received a call from one of our largest customers that happened to also be one of the largest 3PLs in the world asking us for capacity to haul bottled water out of Canada and into Virginia. They asked for 101 trucks out of Canada and needed them ASAP.

Having a large fleet of around 3,000 trucks, it was a big order, but not insurmountable. By the time I got to the office, however, the order had jumped to over 600 trucks. That was every truck that US Xpress had on the Eastern seaboard.

Taking those orders at the end of the third quarter would cause chaos in US Xpress’ fleet and create massive strain on the network. Still, I took every one of the loads.

We weren’t prepared, but made it work

Operationally, we were unprepared for the work. I called my developer that morning and told him I needed an automatic system to duplicate 600 identical orders. Without that, it would take about five minutes to enter each individual order. He was able to get the program up and running with a few hours.

We also needed a team of operations folks to handle the logistics, communications, and coordination of all of the loads. We ended up hiring twelve folks that day and doubled the size of our staff.

Over the course of two days, we took all 600 trucks and moved them into Canada to get bottled water. They loaded up and headed south to Virginia. Being apart of an emergency relief convoy had certain privileges for the drivers. They were allowed to do away with hours-of-service limitations and had expedited pass through at the border. Plus, they were paid handsomely.

Virginia couldn’t handle all the incoming trucks — and they still weren’t unloaded days after they came in

Once the trucks got to Virginia things were much more difficult. They were unprepared to handle the influx. The trucks were sent into Fort Eustess, Virginia, an active military base. September 11 was still a recent memory and the military was not comfortable with a surge of civilians on base. They didn’t have the facilities ready to handle the influx, nor did they have the security protocols on how to deal with drivers. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

No one knew what to do with all of the trucks that had just arrived. The trucks came rolling in, but no one knew where to send the supplies and they had no plan. We discovered that at a typical relief site, seven government agencies are involved in determining where to send all of the supplies.

Relief trucks lined up at a hurricane relief site.

We started to get worried on Monday (36 hours after the orders first came in) and not a single truck had been unloaded. We were getting paid as the drivers sat, but that was not our biggest concern. We were worried about whether the supplies were ever going to be delivered to the people that needed it. We watched as the governor of Virginia got on TV 30 miles away begging the federal government for assistance in relief supplies.

What he wasn’t aware of or didn’t acknowledge was that over 600 trucks were sitting at a military base thirty miles away and had not moved. Clearly something was amiss.

Our drivers were also getting restless. Many of them were being held on the loads without any consideration of their needs (not by us — but by the government folks on the ground). Some were missing hometime, but more were just bored. We paid the drivers an hourly rate and most of them were satisfied, but most were bored and frustrated.

Days later, we took over from the Feds

By Wednesday, we had enough. We dispatched a team of about ten folks on a corporate jet to Virginia and told the Feds we were taking over the entire project. We started to make plans to release most of the drivers from the project and would keep a group of shuttle drivers to shuttle supplies around the various relief spots across the state. We had some initial resistance from the government folks on the ground, but they started to buy in.

Over the course of about six hours, most of the trucks were gone. The team of super dedicated and diligent drivers provided millions of bottles of water, ice, and ready-to-eat meals to the folks that needed it.

For our efforts, we ended up billing out over $2 million dollars for the project (of which $1.2 million was for detention alone). After that, Xpress Direct ended up being a key provider and leader in relief logistics, including the Florida Four and Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was a $30 million-plus dollar project and took months to complete.

While we got better at handling the projects, we found the disaster coordination to be challenging when trying to coordinate between multiple government agencies. This cost precious time. I hope that is not the case with Florida and Ian.

FreightWaves CEO Craig Fuller was the founder of Xpress Direct (XD), the on-demand division of US Xpress and one of the largest providers of emergency capacity. Craig left his executive post at Xpress Direct in 2005.