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A look back: 6 impactful weather events in 2021 transportation

Supply chain kinks at the hands of hard freezes, hurricanes, heat waves and more

(Photo: Nasa & Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

2021 has been a year full of unforgettable weather, from a deadly record cold snap to major hurricane damage and a crop-killing heat wave. These are among the events, in no particular order, that had the most impact on North American transportation, trucking and supply chains.

Deep South deep freeze

A deadly February deep freeze that enveloped the central and southern U.S. became the nation’s first billion-dollar weather disaster on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. At least 125 people died as a direct or indirect result of the multiday arctic outbreak that produced historic low temperatures, more than 50 of them in Texas. 

Related: News Alert: Ice storm turns deadly in Texas

According to the National Weather Service, the low in Dallas dipped below zero for only the fifth time in recorded history, reaching minus 2 degrees on Feb. 16, which was the city’s second coldest temperature. The arctic blast was preceded by an ice storm during which several people died as a result of a 100-plus vehicle pile up on Interstate 35 in Fort Worth. Lows were in the teens and single digits in Austin.

Texas experienced the majority of the property and infrastructure losses that were incurred by more than a dozen states. The preliminary total damage estimate has exceeded $10 billion, making it the most costly winter weather disaster on record for the U.S.

Pipes and other exterior components at many Texas petroleum, natural gas and power generation plants cracked under the pressure of the abnormally cold conditions. This contributed to a breakdown of the state’s electrical grid, leaving millions of Texans without heat or electricity during the cold snap. The deep and persistent cold drove up heating demand and Texas power producers struggled to meet surging demand.

Jason Busch, founder of Spend Matters, a procurement and supply chain social media site, told Veriforce that while it’s difficult to be fully prepared for a “black swan” event in terms of equipment and supply chain failures, “we can proactively put mitigation plans in place, which include our suppliers.”

(Map: FreightWaves SONAR Outbound Tender Volume Index (OTVI.USA). To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.)

He suggested that state officials didn’t have the right set of “ready” suppliers lined up to provide help after an event such as the deep freeze.

According to FreightWaves Market Expert Zach Strickland, the deep freeze was definitely the top weather story of the year regarding supply chains and trucking. He said the nationwide freight market was stabilizing, as it normally does in January and February, until the storm froze networks and forced shippers to shut down. Then it rebounded quickly, with the average demand for freight rising above pre-storm levels. 

This can be seen in the FreightWaves SONAR Outbound Tender Volume Index (OTVI.USA) chart above. Strickland added that it’s hard to allocate all of the volatility to the deep freeze, but it was obviously a catalyst to some extent.

Hurricane Ida

Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, as a powerful Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 29. Winds were clocked at 150 mph when it hit the Gulf Coast.

Along its path of destruction in Louisiana, Ida all but destroyed the small city of Grand Isle and knocked out electricity to more than 1 million people. There was widespread infrastructure damage in the southeastern part of the state, as well as major flooding in coastal areas.

Related: Louisiana ports push for federal aid following Hurricane Ida

Ida forced ports to close, and crude oil production was disrupted as oil facilities had to temporarily shut down. New Orleans’ levees survived, but power line damage was extensive across the city. All of this happened as high demand was already overwhelming supply chains due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trucking companies were responsible for bringing in new supplies to areas recovering from the storm.

“The trucking industry already has two major issues: long port delays, as well as a labor shortage,” Gad Allon, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology, told Business Insider in mid-September. “Now we’re triple-straining the systems by requiring them to go into areas that will be difficult to access, where they will be bogged down.”

Ida produced an estimated $62.25 billion in damage, making it the sixth-costliest tropical cyclone to hit the country. Katrina (2005), Harvey (2017), Maria (2017), Irma (2017) and Sandy (2012) are the top five.

Pacific Northwest record heat wave

A scorching triple-digit heat wave spread across the Pacific Northwest in late June, shattering daily, monthly and all-time records in several cities.

Related: How ‘killer’ summer heat stole the Christmas tree supply

High temperatures ranged from the mid-90s to more than 110 degrees, up to 30 degrees above normal. All-time record highs were set in Seattle, Spokane and Vancouver, Washington, as well as Portland and Pendleton, Oregon, just to name a few. The extreme heat crossed the border into British Columbia, where the high soared to 121 degrees in Lytton. This was not only an all-time record for the town but for the entire country of Canada.

Image: FreightWaves (Source: NWS)

Unfortunately, the heat wave hit during a serious drought, and a wildfire destroyed much of Lytton as a result. Many Christmas tree farmers lost trees due to sunburn. Seedlings planted in the spring died, which will impact future business.

The shortage, combined with high demand, jacked up Chtistmas tree prices in some parts of the country. Doug Hudley, seasonal spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, told FreightWaves that most of the pinch has been felt out West.

“Most of the trees grown in the Pacific Northwest are sold in the Western states, and [those produced in] the East sell in the Eastern states,” Hundley explained. “So there could be a problem with not having enough trees in the West but not in the East.”

(Map: FreightWaves SONAR Trusted Rate Assessment Consortium (TRAC) for Portland, Oregon, to Los Angeles lane dry van rates. To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.)

Another indication of high demand is recent upward pressure on trucking spot rates out of Oregon. A spot rate, also called a spot quote, is a one-time fee that a shipper pays to have a carrier move a load at current market pricing. Spot rates are a form of short-term, transactional freight pricing that reflect the real-time balance of carrier supply and shipper demand in the market.

As the demand for real Christmas trees began rising last month, the cost of shipping them followed suit. The FreightWaves SONAR chart above, featuring the Trusted Rate Assessment Consortium (TRAC), shows the spot rate on the Portland to Los Angeles lane jumping from about $1.70 per mile to about $2.05 per mile by mid-November, rising as high as nearly $2.30 by Thanksgiving. It reached nearly $2.40 Saturday.

Colorado snowstorm

A powerful storm in mid-March dumped heavy, wet snow in Denver and the Front Range of the Rockies.

More than 27 inches fell at Denver International Airport (ICAO: DIA) by early morning on March 15, making it the fourth-largest snowstorm on record in Denver since 1881. It was also the city’s second-largest snowstorm ever in the month of March. Before this blizzard, Denver’s fourth-largest snowstorm on record was on Christmas Eve in 1982 when 23.8 inches of snow piled up.

(Map: FreightWaves SONAR Outbound Tender Rejction Index (OTRI.DEN) for the Denver freight market. To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, click here.)

According to a KUSA-TV report, the heavy snow, high winds and icy conditions closed all of the runways and airline operations at DIA from March 14 into March 15. The storm also knocked out electricity to a large part of the Denver metropolitan area.

The FreightWaves SONAR chart above shows a spike in the Outbound Tender Rejection Index (OTRI.DEN) for Denver right after the storm hit. This indicates the reluctance of carriers to accept from the Denver market, likely due to the storm damage. Carriers chose to wait until conditions improved and power was restored before accepting loads and sending drivers there to pick up the freight.

Colorado landslides

Periods of torrential rain this summer caused major mudslides and landslides in northern Colorado, leading to closures on Interstate 70. The storms came during normally dry months of the year, and the landslides blocked about a 20-mile stretch of the highway in the Glenwood Canyon area, about 160 miles west of Denver. This is part of a vital corridor for long-haul freight and agricultural products, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).

Related: Colorado trucking company takes ‘huge hit’ from I-70 closures

CDOT told FreightWaves it had to shut down that part of I-70 seven times between late June and mid-August due to landslides, as well as mudslides and debris flows from wildfire burn scar areas. The longest closing lasted a little more than two weeks. Many carriers, like Denney Transport, had to reroute their drivers well out of their way in order to get around the problem, decreasing efficiency due to increased transit times.

Mudslide on Interstate 70 in northern Colorado, Aug. 9, 2021. (Photo: CDOT)

“At the end of the day, we took a huge hit and it was incredibly frustrating for a period of time when it was constant,” Erica Denney, sales manager for Denver-based Denney Transport, told FreightWaves.

While transportation officials were eventually able to stabilize the area and keep I-70 open, they continue to work on possible long-term solutions to preventing the issue in the future.

Pacific Northwest floods

Months of persistent rain during the fall culminated in major flooding across the Pacific Northwest in late November and early December.

The worst floods drowned areas from northern Washington into British Columbia. Seattle, as well as Vancouver and Abbotsford, British Columbia, recorded their wettest meteorological falls (September through November) with 19.04, 20.88 and 32.94 inches, respectively. Abbotsford was badly damaged by flooding and landslides.

Related: Port of Vancouver ship backlog hits 60

The Port of Vancouver had to suspend rail service for at least two weeks due to the flooding and landslides, leading to a huge backlog of container ships waiting for a berth. Bruce Rodgers, executive director of the Canadian International Freight Forwarders Association, told American Shipper that the recovery is being hampered by the slower speeds and reduced train sizes that come with winter operations.

“We’ve got that compounded with the additional volumes coming, so it absolutely is a challenge,” Rodgers said. “We’re not anticipating any relief anytime soon.”

Portions of Interstate 5 and U.S. Highway 101 in Washington were closed at times. As of Sunday, portions of major British Columbia highways, including the Trans-Canada Highway, remain closed or only open for essential travel.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.