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.
Fourteen 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 eleven made up the on-demand provider of US Xpress, known as Xpress Direct. We were setup 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. It was a category three, but Virginia was unprepared for such a major storm. 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.
Over the course of the week running up 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 btw), 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.
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 fairly large fleet (3000 trucks at the time), 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 were going to play havoc on US Xpress’ fleet and create massive strain on the network. Naturally, I took everyone of the loads.
Operationally, we were unprepared for the work. I called my developer that morning and told him I need an automatic dupe system to duplicate 600 identical orders. Before that, it took around 5 minutes to enter in each individual order. He was able to get the program up and running with a few hours. Additionally, we needed a team of ops 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 HOS limitations and had expedited pass through at the border and were paid premiums for participating in the project.
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.
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 detention as the drivers sit, 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 thirty 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 a per hour rate and most of them were satisfied, but most were bored and frustrated.
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. What we're left with were a small of super dedicated and diligent drivers that provided millions of bottles of water, ice, and MREs to the folks that needed it.
For our efforts, we ended up billing out over $2 million dollars for the project (of which $1.2M 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 $30M+ 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 Harvey and Texas.