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Ready When Disaster Strikes

By on January 1, 2019

Preparation Key to Quick Recovery from Hurricane Michael

When disaster strikes at one or more TA locations, you can be sure someone has already thought about what needs to be done and who should do it. That was exactly the case as Hurricane Michael slammed into the TA Marianna Travel Center in Florida’s Panhandle. The dedication to assisting staff members and serving customers was clearly evident.

In her job as Director of Insurance & Risk, TravelCenters of America’s (TA’s) Julie Gerda watches lots of TV news. Hurricanes are just one facet of the many natural and manmade disasters that appear on her radar screen. She also has her antenna up for tornadoes, earthquakes, rain and snowstorms, bomb threats, fires, disease outbreaks and other stressful events that might impact any or all TA locations.

In the case of hurricanes, a 25-page readiness guide provided useful checklists for field operations personnel and site management. In preparing to close and reopen TA Marianna, hurricane-tested guidelines were already in place. The people in the field and at the affected sites are best equipped to adapt the guidelines to individual situations and apply the flexibility needed to meet unique circumstances. Updates are provided to customers on a website landing page, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Packing Quite a Punch

Hurricane Michael made landfall on the morning of Wednesday, October 10th, packing wind speeds up to 155 mph—on the cusp of Category 5 intensity. The eye of the storm pretty much flattened the 24-mile stretch along Florida’s Panhandle from Panama City to Mexico Beach. Fifty miles inland, Michael also delivered a knockdown punch to Marianna, known as “The City of Southern Charm.” With its population of approximately 7,500, Marianna serves as the seat of largely rural Jackson County. TA Marianna sustained some significant damage as the sustained winds fell within the 96-mph to 110-mph Category 2 range, with some gusts topping out above 130 mph.

Benefits of Preparation

In preparation for Michael’s Wednesday arrival, Store District Manager (DM) Randy Salmeron arrived on Tuesday to oversee the shutdown of TA Marianna. As the designated emergency coordinator he helped secure the site prior to a government mandated 10:00 p.m. closing the night before. With much of its devastating force and fury intact, Michael arrived at TA Marianna about 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. In Thursday morning’s light, the damage was evident. The HVAC units were ripped from their moorings and slid across the roof. Water was leaking where the units were anchored. An 80-ft light tower fell on the building. The hi-rise sign faces, lighting behind them and a canopy on the diesel side were badly damaged.

Somewhat surprisingly, the buildings were structurally sound, and the wrapped gasoline and diesel pumps came through mostly unscathed. However, there was no electric power, no natural gas, no cellphone and landline service, no internet, and the water supply was under a boil order. Most refrigerated and frozen foods for the Country Pride full-service restaurant and the Taco Bell and Popeyes quick-serve restaurants were lost. The travel store inventory was largely unaffected.

The Power to Recover

One of two TA-owned, trailer-mounted, high-capacity generator sets was dispatched from Atlanta. On Friday afternoon, power was restored to the main building, the fuel islands and the parking lot. The fuel pumps were unwrapped and prepared for use. Unfortunately, the computer system, including the ability to process credit cards, was not operational. The assembled employees began pumping fuel for cash customers, and the payments were walked into the store. Others directed traffic and facilitated an orderly refueling process.

Among the first to return to work were five site General Managers (GM): Patrick Gorlott, TA Truck Service; Kathy Fleegle, travel store; Emily Valdez, Country Pride; Anthony Kirkland, Taco Bell and Theresa Kent, Popeyes. Some additional staff members began filtering in. Everyone pitched in to work the gasoline and diesel islands and staff the travel store. TA Marianna was the first gasoline retailer in the area to reopen. As word spread regarding fuel availability, business boomed. At one point, cars were lined up in two directions for approximately three miles each way.

On the supply side, the regular supplier terminal in Bainbridge, Georgia, about 50 miles or one hour away, also suffered damage and was operating at reduced capacity with a curfew limiting hours. To help meet the demand, TA arranged supplemental fuel deliveries from a terminal in Jacksonville. However, the one-way trip took approximately 3.5 hours to cover the 225-mile distance. Much to everyone’s credit, the fuel continued to flow virtually nonstop with the exception of a single one-hour outage at the end of the day on Monday prior to curfew, which was initially in effect from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for seven days before expanding  to 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. for the next five days.

The first  priority was helping employees and their families with food, water, other beverages, toiletries and the basic necessities available from the travel store. All of these items were dispensed to employees as needed at no charge. The TA Truck Service team handled some service needs for the first responders, National Guard personnel, and the supplemental utility and tree-removal crews that came in from surrounding states. Convoys of 25 to 50 arriving utility trucks were common, and the total number reportedly grew to approximately 1,500 vehicles working all across Jackson County and the surrounding area. Some crews made TA Marianna their base of operations.

On the restaurant side, progress was limited by a boil order and the curfew hours, but operations began ramping up as circumstances allowed. When the boil order was lifted on Tuesday morning the 16th, the Country Pride restaurant reopened. With food supplies replenished, Popeyes opened shortly after noon and the Taco Bell opened on Wednesday morning. Restaurant hours were initially set at 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Putting Others’ Needs First

Every TA Marianna staff member sustained some damage to their residences, including homes, mobile homes, condos and apartment complexes. More than 20 were either total losses or were so badly damaged they were uninhabitable or condemned by governmental agencies. As the devastating reality of the heavy personal losses set in, many of the TA Marianna team members placed the needs of others before their own. Most of those who stayed in the area made concerted efforts to help restore order at TA Marianna in preparation for serving their fellow staff members, the community at large, the first responders, relief workers and the array of governmental officials who descended upon Jackson County.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Michael, TravelCenters of America CEO Andy Rebholz, President & Chief Operating Officer Barry Richards and their senior management team at the Westlake headquarters were focused on the wellbeing of the TA Marianna staff. The field management team and site management were encouraged to do whatever was necessary to assist all employees in their recovery efforts. A major boost for those families that suffered the most was provided by payroll continuation for two weeks, regardless of the hours worked after Michael passed.

“Of the many hurricanes we’ve experienced over the years, Michael was certainly one of the worst,” said Barry Richards. “Based on the accounts received from those on the ground, we quickly realized many TA Marianna staff members experienced life-altering events. We wanted them to know that we had their backs, that we weren’t going to be one of their many problems. We decided to keep the paychecks coming while they started getting their lives back together. I’m so proud of our field people who rushed in and helped the staff members who were able to return to work. They worked together bringing some order to a world of chaos. It’s comforting to know that many team members placed others’ needs before their own and did the right things to help others, which is exactly what we hoped would happen.”

About Warren Eulgen

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