THE WATER was climbing steadily up the stairs toward the family's second-story apartment in New Orleans. It may be too late to get the three small children to safety, the young father thought. What could he do to save his family?
With the help of his cousin, the father emptied the refrigerator and lowered it onto the floor. He lifted the three children and placed them inside, using the refrigerator as a lifeboat to float them to higher ground. With three adults alongside the bobbing icebox, they navigated it toward the Louisiana Superdome. After a brief stint there, they were bused to the Houston Astrodome before eventually finding temporary lodging in northwest Houston.
Terrell and his family were among thousands who lost everything in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The unfathomable human suffering that residents of the central Gulf Coast are experiencing has led millions of us, including numerous companies and individuals in our industry, to reach out and help.
Times like these really drive home the importance of what our industry does. We equipped the military trucks that delivered supplies when no other vehicle could get there. We built the van trailers that delivered the donated food and clothing victims desperately needed and our nation so generously supplied. We assembled the utility trucks that worked around the clock to restore electricity.
It's gratifying to think how much our products contributed to the comfort and safety of these victims. But that's secondary. More gratifying has been how individuals — inside and outside our industry — have reached out to others. Many who produce commercial trucks and trailers have moved quickly and generously. Industry companies have provided jobs, donated inventory, and opened their checkbooks.
Trade associations also have helped. Soon after the tragedy, the National Truck Equipment Association had a dedicated page up and operational on its web site. The page contains jobs that member companies have, suggests ways to help, and points out the names of member companies that may have been affected by the hurricane.
Katrina cut a wide swath through the Gulf Coast, but surprisingly few industry companies stood directly in its path. Truck and Transportation Equipment is the only NTEA member in New Orleans. According to Bob Frey, a truck equipment distributor in Mobile, Alabama, there are no truck equipment shops between New Orleans and Mobile — the area along the coast that experienced the full fury of the storm.
The same basic picture holds true for trailers. The area has no significant trailer manufacturing operations, and most major trailer OEMs serve the area — including New Orleans — through dealers outside the region, typically in Houston or Mobile.
The storm did limited physical damage to industry companies. More costly has been the disruption of business. Even as the water recedes, Truck and Transportation Equipment remains in a virtually deserted city. There have already been signs that business has begun to return for those outside of New Orleans, but how can you sell truck equipment in a city where your customers and employees have been forcibly evacuated?
Normally, the September version of this page makes reference to state and local governments, but always in relation to how states and municipalities in most areas of North America use the equipment our industry provides to keep streets and highways clear of snow and ice. This year, though, it has been difficult to think of snow and ice when so much water has covered streets and roads.
Year after year, snowstorm after snowstorm, state and local governments spring into action, using this equipment to help protect citizens from unsafe roads. These entities prove they can handle the routine — and even the unusual. But Hurricane Katrina was beyond unusual. It showed that even with contingency plans drawn up, government has a tough time dealing with the unprecedented. Emergency planning is one thing. Executing the plan in the face of a Category 5 hurricane is something else.
At one point, tens of thousands were clamoring for transportation out of the squalor of the Superdome. Nearby, hundreds of school buses sat idle in a flooded parking lot. Even well-engineered products can be rendered ineffective through mismanagement.
Overall, however, the people and products of our industry were able to deliver help and hope during this crisis. With that help, people like Terrell have been able to move on. Terrell, for example, has been hired as a public school teacher and is busy building a new life for himself and his family. One of the first things he needed to get was a new refrigerator.