Hurricane Dorian accelerates Florida’s freight flow

Hurricane Dorian accelerates Florida’s freight flow

Hurricane Dorian may put a dent in truck capacity this fall, but probably not as much of a hole as hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

(This story was updated at 5:30 pm ET, Aug. 30, 2019)

STUART, Florida — A surge of surface freight transportation activity is underway in Florida as businesses move goods out of the state or try to get them in place before Hurricane Dorian’s landfall, most likely late Monday. 

Ports are making storm preparations, as well, with vessel movements likely to be restricted or banned as Dorian draws closer. 

The Florida East Coast Railway will suspend northbound and southbound service Friday evening, when its last regularly scheduled trains will depart. Trucking companies in the state are likely to move assets toward the Gulf Coast, assuming the hurricane does not change course. At this point, a high-pressure system in the Atlantic is aiming Dorian at eastern Florida.

The slow-moving storm has many trucking businesses in a "holding pattern," C.H. Robinson Worldwide said in a customer advisory. Less-than-truckload carriers continue to operate, with no terminal closings as of Friday.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a regional emergency declaration Thursday that suspends hours-of-service rules for truck drivers providing emergency relief services in a broad area in Florida and beyond that could be affected by Hurricane Dorian. The region covers states from Louisiana to Florida to Virginia where aid may originate.

“Once the driver has returned to the terminal or other location, the driver must be relieved of all duty and responsibilities and must receive a minimum of 10 hours off duty if transporting property,” the FMCSA said in its Regional Emergency Declaration.

Fuel, necessities running short

The storm is expected to arrive Monday or Tuesday, perhaps as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of more than 130 miles per hour. Dorian's forecast arrival on the coast has been pushed from early Monday to late Monday or early Tuesday as it slowly gathers speed.

Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys and western Florida as a Category 4 storm in 2017 after ravaging the Caribbean. Dorian dodged Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands and appears to be building strength as it moves over open water.

Trucking companies in Florida are well-versed in hurricane preparation and response. The first rule is to move equipment out of harm’s way, with the second being to position it so it can be put back on the road quickly. The problem is local drivers may not be immediately available and customers may not be open to accept deliveries for some time if storm damage is severe.

Grocery and retail stores on Florida’s “Treasure Coast,” which runs from Vero Beach south to West Palm Beach, have already been stripped of necessities. By Friday, sporting goods stores and big-box retailers had already sold out of coolers, propane cookers, and battery-powered lanterns. 

Truckers may face fuel shortages in parts of the state, especially as Labor Day draws near. Gas stations are already closing along the I-95 corridor in south Florida, making travel more difficult for motorists who might want to leave the state ahead of the hurricane. “Panic-pumping” led to shortages following Hurricane Irma in 2017, as well.

It’s possible Dorian will cause enough damage to siphon away some excess US truck capacity, but likely not as much as hurricanes Harvey and Irma removed from the market two years ago. In September that year, Irma exacerbated the damage wreaked weeks earlier in Houston by Harvey, most seriously with widespread flooding in a manufacturing hub.

Dorian will hit a highly populated consumer market with more inbound than outbound freight, rather than a manufacturing and refining center with supply chain links throughout the United States. Still, damage could quickly climb into billions of US dollars.

The course Dorian takes over the next two days could impact the course US freight markets take during the rest of 2019.

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @willbcassidy.