KATRINA UPDATE: Industry reaches out with jobs, accommodations for evacuees

In the wake of the devastating swath that Hurricane Katrina cut through the Gulf Coast, industry companies and organizations all over the United States are banding together to offer jobs and accommodations.

As Tom Rawson watched the footage of levees bursting in New Orleans, he already was formulating a plan in his head. Rawson, president/CEO of RKI, a Houston-based company that specializes in service bodies, truck boxes, truck-mounted cranes, and winches, decided he would not only offer jobs, but he’d also relax hiring requirements so that applicants would not need a social security card in their possession—just a Louisiana state-issued driver's license or ID. And if they didn’t have steel-toed boots or a welding hood, the company would purchase those items for them.

As of Wednesday, RKI—which is now flying the City of New Orleans flag under the U.S. flag at its headquarters—had hired five evacuees for a variety of posted openings, including CAD Designer, machine helpers/trainees, welders/fitters, spot welder, general laborers, custodians, quality-control inspectors, tool and die maker, assembler, automotive painter and machinist.

“We knew these people were going to be stuck here in Houston a lot longer than they thought they’d be,” Rawson told Trailer/Body Builders today. “We felt that was all we could do, and so we’d do it. And if it helps a whole lot of people, that’s wonderful.

“(The storm damage) is incomprehensible. It’s just horrific. I’ve never seen anything like it—and I don’t hope to in the future either. But if anyone thinks Americans aren’t generous, they have the wrong idea. Everybody wants to help.”

RKI’s job listings are posted on a special Hurricane Katrina Relief page constructed by the National Truck Equipment Association at http://ntea.com/katrina.asp earlier today. There are eight other companies offering jobs—including ones as far away as Northside Ford Truck Body & Equipment in Portland, Oregon, and Intercon Truck Equipment in Boothwyn, Pennsylvania. There also is information on other members possibly affected and tax relief for hurricane victims.

The page was started after Austin Sleeper, general manager of Dealers Truck Equipment in Buda, Texas—with another shop in Baton Rouge, Louisiana—called the NTEA and offered jobs and accommodations to evacuees. The NTEA included his offer in its e-mail newsletter Friday, which inspired others to join the effort.

Sleeper is hiring yard help, forklift drivers, delivery drivers, mechanics and parts help. Dealers Truck Equipment in Baton Rouge also is offering jobs, but the housing situation is extremely tight, so Sleeper is offering two rooms in his Texas home for accommodations.

“It was just one of those things, ‘What can I do to help?’ ” Sleeper said. “There are a lot of people who don’t understand the governmental system, and this is one way to help them get their life back on track—even just to get through the nightmare.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have the wherewithal to bring in an unemployed family and support them. I figured if our industry got together, we could sure enough get the people that aren’t used to the governmental system to keep moving forward. I’ve been through some personal tragedies—minor compared to this, but for me, getting back to work was good for me. If you sit around and dwell on that stuff, it’ll tear you up. My employees are watching too much TV, and they’re getting depressed just thinking about the people who are suffering.”

Said NTEA communications director Gwen Brown, “It’s awesome what companies are doing. Scott Lien of Intercon said that maybe some evacuees have family up there, and if they need help getting up there, he could help them relocate. He pointed out that a lot of people not only don’t have their job, but their kids have nowhere to go to school. The Pennsylvania governor announced they’re airlifting 1,000 people to a hospital there. Scott felt maybe some of those people would want to stay and work in Pennsylvania.”

Meanwhile, industry companies appeared to have survived Katrina with only minimal damage.

The biggest concern was for Truck and Transportation Equipment Co Inc in New Orleans. Attempts to reach owner Jay Matherne have been unsuccessful, but Sleeper said he has learned that the company sustained only minor flooding and is in the process of cleanup.

Rawson said he has a sales person who made contact with the company.

“Most of their workers are scattered all over the place, and they can’t find a lot of them,” he said. “But they do have power. Jay is trying to get it back together with whatever crew he can muster.”

That was gratifying news to Bob Frey, owner of Truck Equipment Sales Inc in Mobile, Alabama, the closest truck equipment dealer east of New Orleans.

“He’s by the airport, and I was afraid he was done,” Frey said. “He must have just been on a high piece of ground.”

He just hopes that Matherne can remain where he is in the wake of the edict by Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who threatened forced evacuations.

“You can’t put a sign on your door saying, ‘I’m coming back in two months,’ and trust that anything’s still going to be there,” said Frey, who has dozens of cousins in the New Orleans area who have been evacuated.

Truck Equipment Sales lost a $5,000 sign during the hurricane. Power was out for five days.

“We had workers come in and we let them clean up the yard, just trying to get some hours in,” he said. “But there wasn’t much you could do without power. Most didn’t come in because they were cleaning up their houses.

“We started selling two days after the storm. We sold every fuel tank and pump we had. But we just couldn’t get anything out of the shop.”

He declined to estimate the company’s loss during that week, saying, “If I did try to figure it out, I’d start getting depressed. How do you measure it? I don’t know. It really isn’t worth fooling with. Let’s just move on. Yesterday morning, in two hours, we sold 10 trucks. So maybe that makes up for it. We normally wouldn’t sell 10 trucks in a month. You’ll make up for it. If I was out for three weeks, I’d be worried. But if you’re going to live down here, you have to learn how to live with it.”

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