What a fleet or driver should expect running FEMA loads

The Xpress Direct ground crew with the US Army Corps of Engineers 

The Xpress Direct ground crew with the US Army Corps of Engineers 

On Friday, I posted an article on FreightWaves about my personal experience running the on-demand emergency unit of US Xpress. Over the course of four-years of major hurricane activity, my division handled in excess of 20,000 shipments and billed over $100M in revenue in disaster relief loads alone (we had a much larger on-demand business- but disaster relief was significant for us). We happened to be involved in one of the first projects that ever used commercial contractors for logistics and experienced first-hand how challenging FEMA logistics can be. 

Over the years, we became pretty good at understanding how to manage these projects and built systems and trained our staff to be prepared for it. We had a team that coordinated activity in Chattanooga in our hurricane "war-room" and would fly a group of on-site folks out to the relief sites to manage activity. While the work was challenging, we knew that we were doing something important. Over the years, we learned a few important things. I have tried to make note of these items below. 

Trucks staged at a relief site waiting for dispatch to final point

Trucks staged at a relief site waiting for dispatch to final point

Things to keep in mind: 

1. There will be thousands of loads, if not more. In our first project, we handled over 600 loads for Hurricane Isabel. This was not a huge hurricane and didn't match the size of the Florida Four or Katrina. Some states are better prepared than others. Florida is world-class. I suspect Texas is also better prepared than most. The damage that Harvey inflicted on Texas will be massive and will take months to clean up. Expect truck demand to last for months and more than 10,000 loads. 

2. You will sit. When you get to the relief site, no one will have a clue what to do with you or be able to tell you where to go. Expect that there will be hundreds of other trucks waiting around with you for further instructions. The issue is that any decision requires the coordination of local, state, and Federal officials before any freight can be delivered. We had to get sign off from seven different agencies before delivering the first load, this is slow and painful. You will be dealing with government officials, many of which are not familiar with logistics and don't understand what it takes to handle such projects. Also, considering the fact that the last major hurricane to hit the US was over twelve years ago, it is likely that few of the folks on the ground will have any clue what to do. They will be learning on the job.

3. Make sure you get a daily detention rate built into your confirmation sheets. FEMA pays detention. If you can prove you were invovled in the project- you should get paid. In my day, it was around $50/hour, but I am not sure what the going rate is today. 

4. Get everything in writing. Yep. Don't take anyone at their word. Even the biggest and best brokers are dealing with hundreds to thousands of orders and will forget what they promised you. Because of the way that the government pays- its in their interest to get you paid (since it is cost plus)- so document the hell out of everything and it put in writing and agreed to by the broker. 

5. If you take a load from a broker- expect the payment to be very very slow. This is not because the brokers are trying to screw you (although it does happen)- it is more likely because they are required to send in paperwork and document everything that took place. Many of these brokers have never seen the types of volumes on a single order, so most of them are unprepared. If you work with the companies that are larger- this should be less painful- but even they are slammed. An easy solution is to use a trucking payment service like Triumph. Chad Bobbett of the Facebook group Rate per mile Masters can coordinate the process for getting setup. Check out his Facebook group or go to RPM Quickpay on the web. Even if you don't want to use a factoring service for most of your freight- I strongly recommend doing it in this case. Plus, Triumph or a factoring company can tell you which brokers are shady and which ones are legit. 

6. Brokers get paid cost plus. Keep this in mind when dealing with a broker. Insist on getting paid for all your work. Chances are the broker will be billing detention and other accessorials and since you are doing the hardwork- make sure you get paid. In our days, we were required to document everthing that happened. We got paid for deadhead, detention, linehaul, and other accessorials, but we had to document it. Using ELD data we were able to show how many miles we were on duty, where we repositioned trucks from/to, and how many hours our trucks were involved. We used ELD data to document it and it worked well. 

7. Stay tuned or subscribe to FreightWaves for updates. FreightWaves has the most complete coverage of weather updates from Riskpulse, fuel updates from Breakthrough Fuel, rate commentary and economic impacts from DAT, Broughton Capital, ACT Research, FTR, Stifel, Morgan Stanley, and a number of other sources. 

8. Expect cell service to suck. Yep- the hurricane will likely knock out or over-power both the grid and the cell towers. You might have to resort to CB radio for a period of time. 

9. Most of all- be safe. Do not attempt to drive when conditions are unsafe. A load of bottled water is not worth your life. There will be thousands of more loads on-site.

After posting the article, here were comments from driver Steve Lapp: 

Great info, but from a driver's perspective working almost every hurricane relief effort since Hugo in 1989, I would add a few things:

Stop somewhere outside the emergency zone and stock up on canned or dried food and at least 2 cases of bottled water and plenty of Wal-Mart bags for emergency toilets.

There may be NO restaurants or even convenience or grocery stores open for weeks. Fill your tanks up about 150-200 miles out, there may be no fuel for days.

Bring something to pass the time, books or games are good, there may be no cell service or TV signals for weeks. Have a satellite GPS, no cell service = no phone based GPS and street signs and landmarks may be non existent.

Buy a heavy duty tire plug kit and an air hose that connects to your glad hands, nothing worse than having a flat 50 miles from nowhere with NO cell OR landline service. Finally, bring LOTS of patience!

Hurricane relief is the biggest dog and pony show you will ever see in trucking. But there is a certain satisfaction in being able to help people who are suffering.

Pallets of supplies ranging from generators, bottled water, to MREs 

Pallets of supplies ranging from generators, bottled water, to MREs