As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie teamed up with President Obama to tour the devastation wrought on his state in the days following Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Motor Truck Association Executive Director Gail Toth overcame power and Internet outages to make sure she was able to stay in touch with the state's trucking firms and help them any way she could.
Utility trucks work to get power back up in New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy.
Utility trucks work to get power back up in New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy.

"No one seems to be able to recall anything so horrific descending on our state weatherwise," she said in an interview the day before Thanksgiving. The closest thing was Hurricane Irene a year ago, and that was just a preview of what could happen when a big storm hits the heavily populated Northeast.

"We still have no clear data yet, no way of fully comprehending the damage that it did to trucking," she says. "But it did a lot."

Toth was able to keep a flurry of information flowing because after Hurricane Irene resulted in so many power outages a year ago, she had invested in a generator, and laid in a supply of fuel before Sandy hit. When her cable went out, taking her Internet with it, she found a local Verizon store that was open (running on generators) and got a cellular-based WiFi hotspot and was up again within an hour and a half.

So far, Toth says, the association has been able to confirm more than 2,500 tractors destroyed or damaged beyond repair, and based on unconfirmed reports, she believes it's a lot worse.
Some trucking company owners weren't even able to get to their businesses the day after the storm. Trees and power poles were down across most major roadways, making getting places long and circuitous, if you could get there at all.

After the storm

In the days right after the storm, fuel was a huge challenge. Even fleets that thought they were pretty well prepared with several days' worth of fuel on hand were affected. The traditional main sources of fuel for the area, the Colonial Pipeline and the ports, were closed. Fuel was being trucked in from Delaware and Philadelphia, Toth says. Mobile fueling suppliers were the saving grace for many companies to not only get fuel for truck, but for generators to power their offices and sometimes generator fuel for employees and gas for employees' cars so they could get to and from work.

Toth shares touching stories of trucking companies helping out employees who needed generators or battery backup for needed medical equipment for family members with chronic ailments.

"They were reaching out to make sure their own people were OK," she says. "To me, that's just typical of trucking; they're a great group of people."

Making it even more challenging for the trucking industry in the area to get back on track, she says, is that even truckers who already have insurance checks in hand are having a tough time finding replacement trucks to lease or buy. Although several truck makers and leasing companies are making special efforts to get trucks into the area, there's still a shortage. Toth says members have ventured as far as Ohio and Florida to find trucks, especially used ones, available at a decent price.

Port problems

It's been especially bad in the Port of New York and New Jersey. According to Journal of Commerce, the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers estimates 25% of drayage trucks in the port sustained storm damage after Sandy swamped the port with 4 feet of water.

Toth says witnesses described the scene at the ports as a tsunami wave coming in, much further inland than anyone expected, dumping a lot of garbage and tossing equipment around before receding. There are reports of trucks catching on fire after drivers attempted to start them up following the storm.

Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy, the ports terminals were still trying to work through cargo backlogs from the port being closed. Storm damage caused shortages of chassis and trucks, and truckers have waited for hours.

Adding insult to injury, terminals have refused to waive charges for demurrage on containers stuck inside terminals, or detention for containers that truckers couldn't return to a closed port or damaged terminals.

"We're getting reports from members that they're being charged for the time they held those chassis immediately following the storm and the port wasn't even open," Toth says. "There was no way to even return those chassis."

At press time, both New Jersey Motor Truck and the Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers were looking into getting help from government officials to address the issues at the port.

"I talked to a couple members, and they've lost a lot," Toth says. "You can tell they're just struggling to stay above the curve." With the extra, unavoidable charges, "It's kind of like getting kicked twice." One, she sais, was already up to $200,000 in charges.

Although many of those charges are getting passed on to shippers, Toth notes that plenty of shippers in the region are hurting after the storm, as well.

"God only knows how many of our customers have been hurt, and to add insult to injury, we're going to whack you with demurrage."

After discussing all the challenges the region and its trucking industry are facing following the storm, Toth muses, "It's almost too much to think about. You're just happy you're alive, you've got your house and your family."