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May 9, 2011 4:30 AM, EDT

Truck Firms in South Continue to Operate Despite Devastation, Death from Tornadoes

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the May 9 print edition of Transport Topics.

At Boyd Bros. Transportation Inc. in Birmingham, Ala., Chris Cooper, grandson of the founder, has been running the firm from the cab of his pickup truck since one of the most powerful tornadoes on record devastated Tuscaloosa April 27 before reaching Boyd’s office about 55 miles away.

“We had some pretty significant damage. It tore the majority of the roof off the office,” said Cooper, who with his mother, runs the firm founded in 1956.

“We got power on Tuesday,” Cooper told Transport Topics on Wednesday, May 4, talking by cellphone from his truck parked at the devastated site.

Cooper said the company, a flatbed fleet of about 950 trucks that hauls steel and other building materials, also suffered “significant” damage to trucks and trailers from the twister that killed 40 in Tuscaloosa and left scores missing.

The tornado was one of 305 that traveled across six states between April 25 and April 28, killing more than 300 people.

In some areas of Alabama last week, street lights were still disabled and piles of debris made some roads impassable, said Frank Filgo, president of the Alabama Trucking Association.

“The biggest thing is trying to find generators . . . to bring up their data [on computer] systems,” Filgo said of trucking firms that scrambled to keep freight moving.

Although his electricity was restored, Cooper said, he was waiting for power lines to be strung to the two new modular buildings he trucked onto the site to serve as offices until the main building is repaired.

Despite the damage, Cooper said, Boyd has not missed a run.

“We didn’t skip a beat operationally,” Cooper said. “It was seamless to our external customers.”

Within hours of the late-afternoon tornado, he said, employees began working into the night, with many decamping to Boyd Bros.’ corporate headquarters in Clayton, Ala., 175 miles south of Birmingham.

At a subsidiary of Boyd Bros., WTI Transport in Tuscaloosa, also a flatbed carrier, the terminal building was spared, said WTI president Rendy Taylor.

Some WTI workers were not so lucky. At least two lost homes and others suffered damage that left them temporarily homeless, Taylor said.

“We put them in hotels here in town,” he said, adding that WTI did not want families separated nor employees driving long distances to work if they had to bunk with relatives.

Carrier Transicold South, which rents refrigerated trailers and services reefer fleets in five southern states, also lost its Birmingham offices and five truck bays to the powerful winds.

“The building is a total loss,” said Transicold president Bruce MacDonald from his offices in Atlanta. Transicold, however, is meeting customer demands, albeit in a new way.

MacDonald said employees at the Birmingham site spent the days immediately after the tornado hauling metal and brick debris away so the equipment and parts buried underneath could be salvaged.

About 75% of the equipment and parts were loaded onto mobile units that now travel to customer terminals to service rigs, MacDonald said.

“My [insurance] claim will be well above $1 million,” he said.

In Glade Spring, Va., along Interstate 81 near the North Carolina state line, an April 28 twister killed four area residents and left extensive damage, shutting down many local businesses.

At the 24-hour Petro Truck Stop in Glade Spring, about 30 employees and customers scrambled to safety in windowless bathrooms and storage areas as the tornado bore down on them, Scott Sutphin told Transport Topics May 3.

Sutphin, who manages the truck stop’s store but was not working when the tornado hit, said the damage was so extensive that the truck stop may not reopen this month.

“All our gas and diesel pumps were destroyed, so the earliest would be two weeks,” said Sutphin, who called the estimate optimistic.

The truck stop employed about 110 people, but only 10 to 15 were working last week on cleanup, said Sutphin. In addition to the store he manages, the truck stop has a service center, a restaurant and overnight parking for more than 200 trucks.

About half the trucks parked there at the time of the storm were overturned, said Sutphin, and some drivers asleep in their cabs were injured and taken to hospitals.

The biggest economic blow to the Glade Spring community is the temporary loss of its biggest employer, a Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co. plant that employed about 340 people.

According to news reports, Utility executives said they would rebuild the plant. Calls to the company headquarters in California were not returned.