Southeast Dealers Cope With Floods

Wed November 02, 2005 - National Edition
Pete Sigmund

Before Hurricane Katrina roared through on Aug. 29, employees at the branch store of Great Southern Tractor Co. Inc., in Biloxi, MS, moved a pickup truck to assumed safekeeping inside the store.

All hell broke loose.

Winds of at least 100 mph tore away the large doors on the north and south sides of the building, lifted the roof up (opening the inside to torrential downpours of rain), spun around the interior like a miniature tornado, and knocked down the concrete-block wall that helped support the structure.

“The wind got in and went around and around; then the wall fell on the truck,” said John Lyle, president of the Komatsu dealership, which is headquartered in Jackson, MS. “It would have been better to have left the vehicle outside, where an excavator, wheel loader, and eight other pieces of equipment survived because they were alongside the building, which blocked much of the wind’s fury.”

Six hours later, a tidal surge poured through a bridge opening in the nearby Interstate 10, like a hole in a dam, and washed through the grounds.

The branch was lucky. The surge was an estimated 39 ft. high when it stormed ashore from the Gulf of Mexico 2 mi. away but had subsided to only a foot and a half by the time it reached the store. Most of the damage to the branch, which lost 80 percent of its parts, was from wind and rain, rather than the surge itself.

The company had evacuated all employees. “No one was there, thank God,” said Lyle.

This was but one of the many stories now emerging from dealers and contractors in the Gulf Coast states and southern Florida as they resume their operations after being battered by hurricanes Katrina, Rita or Wilma.

At contractor sites in particular, equipment was often partially or completely submerged by water, so that many pieces had to be replaced or repaired, losing precious time for much-needed rebuilding and making the horrendous task of rebuilding — from lifting trees from demolished buildings to repairing highways — even more difficult and expensive.

“Especially in the New Orleans area, a lot of equipment went under water,” Lyle said. “It’s bad when it’s fresh water but you have to multiply by 10 when it’s salt.”

Water Over the Cabs

Jack Fendrick, president of Scott Construction Co. LLC in Baton Rouge, LA, said customer sites in Slidell, LA, just northeast of New Orleans, sustained a lot of damage in the fury of Katrina.

“Slidell got more of a storm surge than New Orleans; they said it was 20 to 30 feet, and we have customer machines in our shop that were in eight feet of water,” Fendrick said. “Water was over the cabs of some machines and damaged excavators, cranes, trucks, motorgraders and lifts at the contractor worksites. Many contractors couldn’t get their equipment out before Katrina so they put the equipment in their shops. They came back and their shops were gone.”

Fendrick said his dealership lost approximately $2 million in equipment due to flood damage at its Baton Rouge and New Orleans locations “but in our rental fleet, our customers lost a lot more than that; one customer lost about $5 million worth.” Scott provides Volvo, Tadano, Terex, Toyota and other equipment.

Because so much equipment suffered water damage, there was worry in the industry that some hurricane-damaged equipment could be repainted, repaired and then resold. “Buyer Beware” was the message from many dealers, who offered advice of precautions to take (see Avoiding an Iron Lemon on this page).

Equipment Needed for Wilma Cleanup

Damage from Hurricane Wilma, which battered southern Florida on Oct. 24, is still being assessed, but first reports indicate high property losses, compounding the need for equipment from dealers and contractors.

“A lot of customers in the Miami area are trying to assess what they lost; there will be a lot of cleanup down there,” said Steve Foxworth, sales representative of Hydraulic Machinery Inc., in Tampa, FL, which handles Terex boom trucks, JCB forklifts, Pettibone forklifts and other equipment.

Foxworth said Wilma did not damage Tampa, where gusts only reached 45 mph. He added that in the previous Katrina hurricane, a customer in Louisiana had purchased several cranes “and lost pretty much all his equipment in the middle of the flood.”

Succession of Storms Piles Up Needs

The rapid succession of storms caused some extra-pressure situations. When Wilma passed Cocoa, FL, Joe Thurston, vice president of Florida Tractor & Equipment Inc., in Cocoa, was in Gulfport, MS, where Florida Tractor had just opened a branch to sell or rent equipment for aiding the cleanup for Katrina. The new branch also provided mechanics, who have been helping other dealers service equipment.

“All the dealers I’ve seen in the Gulfport area suffered damage from Katrina,” Thurston told Construction Equipment Guide.

He told associates that “The whole scene between Gulfport and New Orleans is total devastation; when you see it in person it looks like Hiroshima, just horrible.”

“He has been very busy,” said an associate.

As Wilma knocked down thousands of trees, damaged homes, and blew out office windows in Southern Florida, Thurston had to worry about equipment and customers back in the Cocoa area. Luckily, this area suffered minimal damage as Wilma passed out to sea.

Florida Tractor is a New Holland Construction and Kobelco dealer.

Challenge to Manufacturers

Equipment manufacturers, already challenged by strong demand, now have a sudden extra burden.

“Replacement of fleets is part of the story, but there is also huge demand from contractors being called down there to help the relief and cleanup efforts,” said Nick Yaksich, vice president, Global Public Policy, in Washington, D.C., of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers in Milwaukee, WI.

“Some of the obvious things in the first wave were generators and light towers. Now the need is for cleanup equipment and debris equipment. Manufacturers were already challenged by the needs of the strong global economy. Then this emergency came up and they wanted to help meet the crisis and aid the relief effort.” CEG

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