Industry plants rebounding from tornadoes

May 1, 2011
UTILITY Trailer's plant in Glade Spring, Virginia, and several Marmon Highway Technologies (MHT) companies in Alabama are in recovery mode after a series
Fontaine Trailer Company’s flagship manufacturing facility in Haleyville sustained significant structural damage to its north side and roof, but three production lines were brought back into operation in less than a week.

UTILITY Trailer's plant in Glade Spring, Virginia, and several Marmon Highway Technologies (MHT) companies in Alabama are in recovery mode after a series of devastating tornadoes rocked the South in late April.

Utility's plant, reopened May 9, more than a week after a tornado slammed into the facility, damaging the building and 250 trailers, turning them into stacks of mangled metal and tires. The reefer plant up the road sustained no damage. The tornado struck early on Thursday, April 28.

“Fortunately, no employees were on the site at the time,” says Harold Bennett, president of Utility Trailer Manufacturing Company. “While our building and roof sustained damage, Utility was fortunate that our machinery and tools were undamaged by the storm. Our employees and contractors have done a masterful job of clean-up, debris removal, and clearing damaged inventory and trailers. We plan to build up our production and reinstate most employees at an aggressive rate.”

To increase production, Utility shifted some of the Glade Spring backlog to the company's dry van plant in Paragould, Arkansas.

“Between the two plants, we hope to be caught up on our delivery commitments within 90 days,” Bennett said May 10. “The committed effort by Utility employees at cleaning up and restarting Glade Spring reinforces our faith in the human spirit and people's ability to rise above near tragedy.”

Three people in the county in which the Utility Trailer plant is located, died and another 50 went to the emergency room when an EF3 tornado — blasting a 140-mph wind — passed through Glade Spring.

Jack Washburn, plant manager, said he arrived at the plant at 2:30 am - about 90 minutes after the EF3 tornado swept through. He said a security guard suffered a minor injury to his leg. Further injury was spared because everyone else had been sent home early at 11:30 pm Wednesday because of the threat of severe weather.

In Alabama, Fontaine Trailer Company's flagship manufacturing facility in Haleyville lost power and sustained significant structural damage to its north side and roof. Three production lines were brought back into operation in less than a week. The headquarters and manufacturing campus of Webb Wheel Aftermarket, Webb Wheel OEM, Webb Wheel Severe Duty and TSE Brakes in Cullman also lost power, but new backup generators were brought online.

All MHT employees survived the storms, although some lost loved ones, including a TSE Brakes employee whose two young sons were killed. Many employees' homes and other property were damaged or destroyed.

“I'm deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life, as well as the unprecedented property damage these storms have caused,” said Kelly Dier, MHT president. “My heart goes out to everyone across the South who was affected by the storms. On a personal level, I'm thankful that, by and large, the MHT family is safe. A number of our employees have sustained personal property damage, and we're working directly to assist these team members. We're extremely fortunate to have multiple plants across Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina that were largely unharmed.”

Fontaine Trailer's platform trailer manufacturing plant in Haleyville, a landmark since 1964, was the hardest hit of the MHT facilities. Although the facility sustained structural damage, including the loss of its roof, the manufacturing equipment inside remains in good condition and the finished trailers on-site were unharmed. The north wall and roof have been temporarily repaired and production resumed May 3. The company expected permanent repairs to be completed by the beginning of June.

“It's unbelievable what people can do when they pull together,” said John Craig, president, Fontaine Trailer Company. “The plant looks really good now. We're running two shifts to catch up on production. Some customers may see a slight delay in order delivery short-term, but we're working hard to meet our delivery commitments and our customers' needs.”

At the Brake and Wheel Ends Group campus in Cullman, a tornado passed within 800 to 1000 yards of the TSE and Webb Wheel facilities, but did not cause any damage. The storms knocked out transmission lines from the nearby nuclear power plant, causing the campus to lose power for a week. Webb Wheel and TSE brought auxiliary power generators online to power non-manufacturing operations. Three more very large portable generators were brought in later to supply power to the production facilities. Main power returned to the Webb Wheel Severe Service facility four days after the tornado. TSE is headquartered in Cullman, but its manufacturing plant is located elsewhere and was unaffected by the storm.

“We may have a couple of small hiccups over a few days, but we should be able to maintain our service levels for our customers,” said J.T. Weis, president, MHT Brake and Wheel Ends Group.

Fontaine Fifth Wheel in Trussville, Fontaine Trailer's Springville and Jasper manufacturing facilities, and the MHT headquarters in Birmingham were untouched by the storms.

Dump body manufacturer Ox Bodies, based in nearby Fayette, Alabama, is helping residents of Tuscaloosa recover from the damage of April 27. As part of its recovery efforts, Ox Bodies has donated over $20,000 in mesh and vinyl tarps to aid in the clean up and rebuilding of the surrounding area.

According to Ox Bodies marketing manager Debbie Puckett, helping out is part of being a member of the community.

“Ox Bodies is very community-oriented,” she said. “There isn't a person at our facility that hasn't been affected in some way by these storms. We knew we had to do something, and this was one way we can help — by providing useful materials that may not be easy to find.”

According to Puckett, Ox Bodies is planning future donations. The tarps donated are a first step by Ox Bodies and are being distributed through Temporary Emergency Services of Tuscaloosa.