ON JANUARY 20 and 21, Miller Transporters Inc held an open house at its newly renovated terminal in Mobile, Alabama. It was a very special occasion.
A little over a year ago—on Christmas Day in 2012—a tornado ripped through the facility laying waste to the maintenance shop, tank wash rack, and offices. Vehicles damaged included 15 tractors, seven tank trailers, two tank containers, and one container chassis. Losses were in excess of a million dollars.
“It was a bad loss, but it could have been so much worse,” says Lee Miller, president of Miller Transporters. “The terminal was closed for the holiday, and just one driver was present at the time of the tornado. Fortunately, he was unhurt. Any other day, and the terminal would have been filled with drivers and other company workers. This is one of our largest, and busiest terminals.
“It was truly impressive the way our employees responded. They helped with the cleanup and endured some very difficult work conditions. We couldn’t close the shop doors for a year, and the mechanics never complained no matter how hot or cold it got. With the wash rack destroyed, we had to outsource tank cleaning, which was an inconvenience for our drivers. Our dispatchers and terminal management personnel spent most of a year working in a portable office. We have a tough group of people in that terminal, and they did a great job.”
Miller Transporters has had a terminal in Mobile since 1966 and has been in the current location since 1977. The terminal is homebase for 45 drivers and 45 tractors. It is an increasingly active tank container depot. Cargoes include a variety of chemicals.
The metal terminal building sits on approximately 15 acres and had fared well in a number of hurricanes and other weather events over the years.
The carrier’s luck changed with the tornado that struck around 5 pm on December 25, 2012. Just one driver was present at the time and was performing a pre-trip on a tractor-trailer unit that was parked outside the terminal building.
The driver saw the tornado when it was about a mile from the terminal. With the twister moving toward him at 35 to 40 miles per hour, the driver made a dash for the terminal building, bolted into the driver’s lounge and slid under a table.
On the way to the Miller Transporters’ terminal, the tornado reportedly skipped from one spot to another, never spending a lot of time on the ground. At one point, it tore through a historic 100-year-old high school, as well as neighborhoods near the truck terminal.
Just before impacting the Miller Transporters’ facility, the tornado went through a neighboring business that leases storage containers. A number of the containers stacked at that business were picked up and thrown into the Miller Transporters building.
In essence, the storage containers became missiles that wrought incredible damage when combined with the force of the tornado. The six-bay maintenance shop area was torn to pieces, and the two-bay wash rack was destroyed. The covered fuel island also was destroyed.
Flying storage containers also caused most of the damage to tractors, tank trailers, and tank containers. “Of the 15 damaged tractors, the six that got the worst of it were brand new and had only been in service for about four months,” says Steven Tapscott, Miller Transporters vice-president of sales and marketing. “We were very fortunate with the tank trailers, because most were parked out by the fence and were not hit directly by the tornado.”
David Bass adds: “Just about everything that wasn’t tied down was damaged or destroyed. Even the shop floor was damaged. The one big break we got was that our wastewater treatment facility had only minor damage. About eight months prior to the tornado we had spent roughly $100,000 to upgrade the treatment plant, which is in a separate building north of the main terminal building.”
Bass was Miller Transporters’ division operations manager and was based in Mobile at the time. Today, he is vice-president of operations.
Immediately following the tornado, Bass went to the terminal for an initial inspection of the damage. One of his initial concerns was that the terminal was now wide open and completely unsecured. He quickly arranged for security.
Cleanup began the next morning. Mechanics, tank cleaners, and other workers at the Mobile terminal pitched in and handled about 25% of the cleanup. A general contractor took care of the rest.
The first days and weeks were tough. “We tried to restore business as usual as quickly as possible,” Tapscott says. “We moved trucks in from other locations. The dispatch office was still able to function once we restored communication, but the dispatchers did have to rely more on the telephone initially. We have a sister terminal system at Miller Transporters, and Mobile handed off computer dispatch activities to its sister terminal in Memphis (Tennessee). Despite the damage to the Mobile terminal, we missed very few loads.”
By May 2013, reconstruction of the terminal was underway. Assuming any tornado has an upside, carrier management took the opportunity to reconfigure the office layout for greater efficiency. They also made structural upgrades to make the building more durable and energy efficient.
The terminal building was rebuilt on the existing footprint. The steel structure was repaired and replaced by the general contractor. The structure was thoroughly upgraded for greater wind resistance. In addition, skylights and energy-efficient lighting were installed in the maintenance shop and wash rack, helping the terminal earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
The office section of the building was reorganized to provide more space in the dispatch center. The upstairs meeting room, which is used for driver safety meetings and other activities, was expanded and now can accommodate up to about 20 people. Remodeling included the addition of a shower in the women’s rest room, and drivers now have 24-hour access to the restrooms and showers.
The two-lane covered fuel island outside the shop was replaced. About the only part of the fuel island unaffected by the tornado was the 20,000-gallon underground diesel storage tank. The contractor built a new canopy, replaced the fuel dispensers, added an access card reader, and upgraded the piping.
In addition to repair and replacement of the structure, the two-bay tank wash rack got a new stainless steel five-vat cleaning system, constructed by Bruce Smart Welding. In addition, Kris Scott, formerly with the Kelton Company, came in to overhaul the Kelton single-pass system that the wash rack uses for products that are easier to clean.
Much of the terminal was back in operation well before the end of 2013. The wash rack was operational by the first week of December.
By January 20, Miller Transporters Mobile terminal team was ready to show off how far the facility had come in a relatively short amount of time. Employees and their families toured the renovated facility on January 20, and that was followed by a customer event on January 21. ♦