Humanitarian logistics group: Truck capacity for Laura recovery in short supply

The head of the country’s most prominent humanitarian logistics organization said Thursday that relief supplies will be more than sufficient to help rebuild areas affected by Hurricane Laura, but that it may be difficult to obtain needed truck capacity due to the very tight U.S. trucking market.

Kathy Fulton, executive director of the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), also said it will “be a very long process” to recover from the hurricane, which was downgraded Thursday morning to a Category 1 storm and then later to a tropical storm. Laura’s path is taking it north toward the Ohio River Valley.

The timber industry will take a major hit from the loss of millions of trees, Fulton said. In addition, many homes and businesses were damaged by Laura’s fierce wind gusts, which even at the downgraded levels reached 75 mph, she noted.

“It will take a long time to clean up from this,” Fulton said in an appearance on FreightWaves’ Midday Market Update Thursday.

Because the Gulf Coast regions of Texas and Louisiana are not hotbeds of logistics activity, there wasn’t much in the way of a dense distribution network to damage, Fulton said. Most of the supplies to support relief efforts will be sourced from Dallas, Shreveport, Louisiana, and other cities that are more established logistics nodes, she said.

The challenge may be in trucking the goods to the central staging areas assembled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to direct supplies into the affected areas, Fulton told the FreightWaves Midday Market Update on Thursday. Commercial capacity remains tight, and many truckers may decide to continue serving their existing contract customers or capturing loads on the spot, or noncontract, market rather than hauling freight for disaster relief, she said.

So-called FEMA Freight, trucker lingo for what the agency pays to haul relief goods, can be very lucrative on the headhaul. However, drivers often wait for days to unload their trailers, thus missing out on load opportunities elsewhere. They may also be asked to relinquish their trailers, forcing them to deadhead to the next location to hook a paying load. Even if drivers keep their trailers, there is often little revenue backhaul opportunity in an area that’s more concerned about getting back on its feet than in producing products.

In the FreightWaves interview, Fulton said she wasn’t concerned that displaced residents will be unduly exposed to the novel coronavirus, noting that most will be sheltered in hotels and other lodging with appropriate social distancing protocols. They will not congregate cheek-to-jowl into mega-centers like the New Orleans Superdome, she added.

Founded in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina, ALAN serves as a conduit and resource between providers of logistics equipment and services and the organizations on the ground ready to mount relief and recovery efforts. Transportation assets are specifically donated to ALAN’s nonprofit partners for their use in helping communities recover from natural disasters. 

ALAN’s work goes on year-round. However, it is best known for its work in a disaster’s immediate aftermath. In the case of Laura, material to support recovery efforts may not be needed for weeks or even as long as a month, Fulton said. 

Ironically, Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of Katrina making landfall in Louisiana, where it wreaked unprecedented havoc on New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Katrina caused more than 1,200 deaths and $125 billion in property damage, making it at the time the costliest tropical cyclone on record. It would be matched by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.