Heavy Equipment Rolls Into Action After Tornadoes Hit

Mon February 25, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Cronin



What nature’s fury destroyed Feb. 5 with a rash of tornadoes in the South must now be cleaned up.

And answering the call are an army of private contractors, department of transportation crews and the National Guard.

The National Weather Service confirmed at least 31 tornado touchdowns in Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky, which killed nearly 60 people and caused millions of dollars in damage.

In Tennessee, which sustained the most extensive damage in the five states, the 230th Engineering Battalion of the Tennessee Army National Guard has moved in with 132 members and a fleet of 136 pieces of equipment, ranging from excavators to chainsaws. The equipment, all of which is owned by the National Guard, was brought onto the scene in a five-hour convoy of 14 trucks from Western Tennessee.

Lt. Richard Jones said the battalion began its mission Feb. 10 to remove debris from public rights of way in a 10- to 15-sq.-mi. area around Lafayette, Tenn.

Jones could not estimate how much debris would be removed, as the Tennessee Department of Transportation and volunteer crews also are helping with recovery efforts.

Members of the 230th Battalion received specialized training at Fort Leonardwood, Mo., in heavy equipment operation or engineering. Jones said a large percentage of the guardsmen perform this type of work in their civilian lives.

Jones compared the devastation to what he and his men saw during a one-year tour of duty in Iraq in 2005.

“There is debris everywhere,” he said.

All of it is being hauled to a rock quarry owned by Rogers Group Inc., where it is processed by a tub grinder, separated and taken to a landfill.

At the quarry, crews are separating out recyclable materials, chipping tree debris into wood chips and burning the rest.

The wood chips are being sent to a Smith County landfill to be placed in between its layers, said TDOT Regional Maintenance Supervisor Mike Brown, and the recyclable materials will be sold by Macon County.

“We are glad to be able to help,” said Sgt. Roy Jones of the 913th Engineer Company. “Some of these folks lost everything they own and it gives us a good feeling to help out.”

Approximately 65 TDOT workers are involved in cleaning up the rights of way in Macon County, along with a large fleet of 50 dump trucks, two skid steers, three Gradalls, seven chippers, three trackhoes and a grader.

Brown said between 70 to 75 percent of the debris had been cleared as of Feb. 17. That translates to approximately 19,500 cu. yd. (14,900 cu m) of material.

TDOT crews are working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

He said morale has been good among his crew and that the workers from TDOT, the National Guard and the state Department of Forestry have been working together well.

“They’re all out there thinking, ’this could have happened in my backyard,’” Brown said.

Military personnel are expected to pull out of the area Feb. 21 and TDOT crews from outside of the county should return to their home counties by the end of the month, Brown said.

The TDOT crews normally perform road maintenance or minimal cleanup duties.

“We’re seeing debris that we don’t deal with every day,” Brown said.

He reported no major structural damage to roads.

Private contractors are keeping busy in the cleanup effort as well.

The eight-man crew from Reynold’s Construction in Jackson, Tenn., expects to be working to remove what’s left of a 10,000-sq.-ft. building at a retirement center.

Foreman Chris McGee has six pieces of equipment at the site, including Bobcat skid steers and JCB excavators, as well as a fleet of trucks to haul away the debris.

McGee said other buildings at the facility dodged extensive damage and can be repaired.

While it’s just another part of his job, McGee realizes the impact it’s having.

“We’re helping the older people get their lives back to normal,” he said.

In addition to the retirement center, Reynold’s Construction workers have demolished a private home and McGee expects to perform similar tasks for the next four to six weeks.

“All of the normal jobs have ceased until we get this straightened up,” McGee said.

With all of the cleanup, equipment dealers are reporting an increase in equipment rentals to contractors performing the work.

At MMS Equipment Sales in Memphis, Tenn., Branch Manager David Smock said MMS has 20 pieces of rental equipment working on the clean-up efforts. On an average day, the company has approximately 90 pieces out on rent.

The demands for equipment run the gamut — excavators with thumb attachments, bulldozers, aerial boom lifts and anything with a grapple bucket.

Smock said all of his customers are cleaning up industrial and warehouse sites since the southeast Memphis area’s residential areas weren’t in the path of the tornadoes.

Damage to Union University in Jackson, Tenn., was extensive — a residence hall and two academic buildings were damaged. Currently, Union officials said MG Construction, H&M Construction and Dement Construction are on campus working toward the school’s recovery.

Chris Carroll, senior vice president of H&M, said his firm recently completed construction of White Hall, the new science building, which sustained light roof damage.

He said students were expected to be back in the building Feb. 19. To help complete the task, H&M called in a crane to lift some of the damaged material away and to bring in new material. CEG