For the Long Haul: Trucking During Crisis

“We will bring whatever is needed. We just haul.”

 

There have been a lot of well-deserved thank-yous aimed at truckers recently, but for many drivers the COVID-19 crisis is hardly their first rodeo. During Hurricane Katrina, it was drivers who delivered lifesaving supplies in the weeks and months following the devastation. After the horror of 9/11, hundreds of truckers were called in to shuttle critical FEMA freight.

Trucking is a crucial piece of America’s emergency response. This pandemic is no different.

But it’s easy to forget that all those numbers on a load board translate into real people. For all our industry’s emphasis on technology and innovation, whether a shipment makes it to its destination lies squarely on the shoulders of good ole fashioned human drivers. Drivers who are sometimes called to risk their lives and leave their families for weeks at a time. Despite all our amazing advances in visibility, automation, and machine learning – the heart of logistics is still human.

We sat down with 3 drivers from across the industry to hear more about their experiences trucking during a crisis, what it’s like out on the road during a pandemic, and how the current situation with COVID-19 compares to other natural disasters.

 

The Drivers

 

Daniel Cedillos has been a driver for 13 years.

Dave Diaz has been in the logistics industry for a decade and a driver for five.

Juan De La Torre has been a driver for 1.5 years.

 

 

What’s it like to be on the road now, versus pre-pandemic?

 

Daniel: Lots of change. There is more respect for truck drivers now than before the pandemic. I was pulled up on the shoulder and this lady came up behind me like “do you need anything? Coffee and donuts?” There is also a lot of panic. I stop at truck stops all the time, it’s not as packed as it was before. Less trucks on the road. Everyone is very cautious of the world around them. Meals are tough to find; you eat wherever you can. You’re restricted from a lot of things in truck stops – you can’t talk, you can’t use your own mug for coffee. Everyone is trying to be very cautious and I understand that.

Dave: It’s better traffic-wise, but as the week goes on, state by state they’re imposing different restrictions that make it difficult to get a warm meal. Other than that, it’s running as usual. I work in reefer, for a Whole Foods supplier, so we really need to be up and running.

Juan: Mostly I’m more scared, as a driver you can catch the virus as well. Demand really picked up at first, but now it’s slow. Unfortunately, I’m stuck in Michigan right now trying to find a backhaul. Traffic has been better, though! I was out here in Michigan on Thursday, I’ve been to Minnesota, Omaha and Iowa and traffic is light. There’s some traffic on 80 around noonish, sometimes you can be stuck for three hours, but lately it’s all traffic with semis. Not many cars. Last week there were cars everywhere, this week they’re all gone.

 

 

Have you driven through other crisis situations before?

 

Daniel: Yes, I have. I even worked through Katrina.

Dave: I’ve done emergency loads for hurricanes down south near the Carolinas and Florida. I’ve driven generators down to Florida going to the Caribbean. We did relief in Texas when Houston was dealing with all that flooding.

Juan: I’ve never driven through anything adverse, I’ve been lucky.

 

 

What was that like?

 

Daniel: [Katrina] was hectic. I have a dry van, so I was bringing food. It was really tough getting through the roads, you have to take very long detours to get where you need to go. Floods in Houston were also tough, seeing how people lost so many things. Everything they own. It was also difficult to drive. You have to pay very close attention. The roads were completely flooded, the water came up right below my door and luckily it stopped before it could get higher. I got lucky. I was stuck in Houston for 2 weeks, no one got in, no one got out.

Dave: You go into those situations, or any emergency relief situation, prepared or over prepared. Going down to the Carolinas and Florida right after their hurricanes, we were expecting downed trees, so we packed extra chains and chainsaws to move debris along with extra water and enough food for possibly 7-14 days out on the road. You can’t always carry enough fuel, so you need to call ahead and see who is open.

 

Stacked boxes containing cans of emergency drinking water

After Katrina, the FEMA Tender of Service Program relied on private drivers to help deliver life-saving emergency supplies, including canned water.

 

 

What have you done to be prepared for COIVD-19?

 

Daniel: I am as cautious as I can be, wearing my mask and gloves to prevent the spread. I’m an owner-operator and I’m still working because there is a lot of work right now. You can’t really be prepared: like you’re never prepared to drive through a tornado. Once you’re there you just have to pray to god and see it through.

Dave: I created an emergency pack for my drivers with masks, sanitizers, gloves, and what not. With instructions like “if you don’t have to go into public then don’t.” Keep your distance from 6-10 feet and you can basically do everything you need to do with a shipper and consignee over the phone.

Juan: I have some homemade masks; we couldn’t find any in the store. I have gloves and hand sanitizer too.

 

 

What do you think the next few months will look like for you?

 

Daniel: Wow. Right now, with how things are, people get freaked out. Everything on Facebook is coronavirus. My phone, the tv, everywhere I see. I don’t want to know what one or two or three months from now will look like. Everybody is scared. I’ve never lived anything like this. I’ve been through disasters but not something like this…not something like this. Katrina is second place, this is all over the world. It is not a game.

Dave: You’re asking me the questions I’ve asked myself in the past week. Logistics does change day by day, and you do adjust to the market and the economy. I’m always working a quarter ahead to two months ahead, but right now everything is on hold. Nobody knows what really is going to happen. We’re waiting on the directions from the president, on the quarantine and social distancing. When is the market really going to break loose, and is it going to break loose? You have so many people out of work who don’t have as much to spend anymore.

Juan: Hopefully everything is over and back to normal.

 

 

Are you worried? Or Is there a silver lining?

 

Daniel: Right now, I live in New Jersey. It’s just terrifying. I have a family, my wife and daughter are across the country. It’s terrifying knowing that they’re in the middle of a place that got it so bad. I can’t do anything about it. Right now, we’re the only people on the road. We should be the only ones on the road.

Dave: It’s too early to say. I’m hopeful to say that, hey, with what’s going on now – it is going to lead to better rates and more freight out there. Kind of thin the heard for capacity. It’s too early to get a gauge, though.

Juan: I’ve read a lot on facebook about increased driver respect, but I haven’t seen it myself.

 

 

What is the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?

 

Daniel: Trying to stay safe. Trying to stay inside my truck. Basically that. There aren’t many cars on the road, all you see are trucks. Weigh stations are closed, like 90% are closed. It’s hard to get food, like I said truck stops are also closed. All you can do is grab whatever you can.

Dave: Shelter in place is always hard for drivers. Where are they going to lay up? All your truck stops and rest areas will close. There aren’t enough parking spots. There are rest areas that are closing. It’s state by state, city by city. First [drivers] don’t have warm food, and now they’re limited with parking.

Juan: Being away from home. I’m afraid of bringing it back home without realizing.

 

An electronic road sign that reads "use social distancing"

“You see signs that say “Quarantine” like everyone coming and going needs to self-quarantine,” says Daniel Cedillos.

 

What can non-drivers do to help support truckers right now?

 

Daniel: Stay home and help each other. Help us help you – stay home. If we stop working, that’s when we should be worried. When the trucks stop working, get scared. But for now, be safe and stay home. Hopefully better things will come.

Juan: A lot of drivers are staying away from their families, so don’t cut them off on the road!

 

Moving Forward

Logistics will continue to move into the future, adopting and building new technology to make supply chains faster and simpler than ever before. Still though, it all comes down to drivers out on the road.

“We will bring whatever is needed,” confirms Daniel Cedillos. “We just haul.”

Ultimately our tech-centric world has a human heart, and in an emergency, it beats at double time.

Thank you to all the drivers who participated in this article, stay safe out there.