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Truckers on the Frontlines of Recovery

Truckers make the world go round. They’ve been on the front lines of the pandemic delivering masks, sanitizer, food and medical supplies and when Hurricane Laura struck, they headed straight for Louisiana to haul, rescue and deliver. From large-scale corporate efforts to trucker-run community organizing, everybody’s in the convoy. In honor of National Truck Driver Appreciation Week we’re joining millions of Americans to #thankatrucker. Here are just a few shining stories of those 3.5 million professional road warriors who get the goods there on time and help keep us alive.

Tyson Foods has long answered the call for disaster aid, relying on its truck drivers to deliver. Their “Meals that Matter” operation includes a 53-foot trailer outfitted with all you need to feed 100,000 — tents, grills, charcoal, cooking supplies, and utensils. Before COVID, they would set up shop in a Walmart parking lot with teams from various plants across the country bringing their own smokers and grills, but now they’ve had to change course. In the wake of Hurricane Laura, they’re sending trucks from their distribution center in Russellville, Arkansas loaded with enough supplies for more than 1 million meals. Instead of dispatching a single truck with one product, they’re turning each trailer into a lunchbox on wheels — 5,000 pounds of tortillas, 10,000 pounds of chicken, 10,000 pounds of prepared sandwiches, bagged ice, and bulk ice. They work with disaster relief partners on the ground to get the goods where they are needed most. 

Speaking of delivering, that’s exactly what Trucks with Room to Spare is all about. Started by Shelli Conaway, who drives a flatbedder out of Lexington, Kentucky, the nonprofit matches truckers who have rubber to burn and room to spare with folks who have supplies to donate and deliver. It’s a highly coordinated effort on the part of Conaway and her crew of volunteer truckers, many of whom are women. We caught up with her on the road in the midst of dispatching Hurricane Laura relief. Overall, she calls it “controlled chaos” and it sounds like it could be nothing less. In an earlier interview with FreightWaves she said: “A lot of truck drivers relate to survivors of natural disasters. Some are just a breakdown or a major engine repair away from losing everything, so they understand the struggles that these hurricane survivors are facing.”

They understand and they work closely with the survivors themselves, by aligning with partners like CN Supply, a volunteer network throughout the country skilled in transporting, distributing and delivering lifesaving supplies to natural disaster victims. It’s no wonder, since CN Supply was born out of Hurricane Katrina from a branch of the Cajun Navy, a water search-and-rescue group that rescued thousands during Katrina. The group has since then helped hundreds of thousands of disaster victims by coordinating delivery of millions of tons of supplies. Co-founder Jessy Gillespie told FreightWaves, “I have seen truckers make up to 10 stops along their routes to build a full truckload of supplies. Our group is then able to hotshot the supplies out to the areas they are needed most.” Packing those trucks up with vital supplies when they’re already on the route toward disaster sites not only saves lives, it saves energy, and that energy efficient strategy is what drives the success of Trucks with Room to Spare and CN Supply’s collaboration. Formerly a costume designer for the film industry, Gillespie explained, “Logistics and sewing are a puzzle to me. I like to make sure all of the pieces fit.”

Ohio-based B2B Factor Finders LLC is solving another piece of the puzzle, offering truck drivers hauling for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) low factoring rates, fuel cards and fuel advances. It can take months to be paid for FEMA loads and without enough up front cash for out-of-pocket trucking expenses and fuel, a would-be do good trucker might not be able to take the load. Add extra long travel delays and the unpredictability of unloading in disaster areas, and many truckers just can’t make it work. With the help of Factor Finders and organizations like Trucks with Room to Spare, those eighteen wheelers keep on turning and people get what they need to rebuild and recover. 

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