SPECIAL REPORT: Truckers beware - Hurricane heads toward East Coast

| 9/16/2003

Truckers headed for the East Coast this week should be cautious and keep an eye on weather reports, as Hurricane Isabel makes its way toward a predicted landfall Wednesday, Sept. 17, or Thursday, Sept. 18.

Monday, Sept. 15, The National Weather Service reported that the storm, which was still carrying sustained wind speeds of 130 mph, was south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, NC, and moving at roughly 8 mph. The storm was expected to turn northwest sometime by midday Tuesday.

The storm could hit the continental United States at any point from North Carolina to New Jersey, The Associated Press reported, and the effects of the hurricane, such as smaller spin-off storms and higher surf, could extend from as far south as South Carolina to as far north as Massachusetts.

Lt. Gary Payne, a public relations officer with the Virginia State Police, said the general consensus seemed to be that the hurricane was likely to hit land at the Virginia-North Carolina border.

When the storm makes landfall, the damage is likely to be widespread. Hurricane-force winds – sustained air movement of at least 74 mph – are now covering an area more than 230 miles wide, the news service reported.

In previous storms, flooding from torrential rains, combined with storm swells, have flooded and closed down many, if not all, routes in and out of coastal areas. The last storm to hit the United States that was as intense as Isabel was Hurricane Andrew, which caused billions in damage in the Miami area.

Payne said that no evacuations or road closings have been ordered yet, but that people are already voluntarily leaving North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

But that doesn’t mean that officials aren’t getting ready, or that truckers don’t need to make backup plans.

“We have a plan in place,” Payne said. “It involves using both lanes of interstates and major highways to route traffic out.

“This is something that would be a very last resort,” he said. “If something happens that the governor calls for a mandatory evacuation, and we have to put this plan into place, you’re going to see most if not all major routes coming from the outer banks closed off to incoming traffic. You won’t be able to get down there. The plan actually could extend as far as up Interstate 64.”

But the plan is a worst-case scenario, Payne said, and “it would be very, very, very remote that this would take place – if the worst happens. You just don’t know what to expect right now.”

In addition to roads, bridges throughout the region are also likely to be closed, Payne said, including the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, which carries U.S. 13 over the bay between Norfork, VA, and Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

“Most truckers know that when it reaches a certain point, they close the bridge tunnel, so you can’t get any traffic up 13, which is a major route” that carries a large amount of truck traffic, Payne said. “Even if we don’t get a direct blow, they’re calling for 50 mph winds up here in the Richmond area, which is far removed from the coast.”

Sgt. Sammy Carr of the State Police said if winds exceeded 45 mph – “well below hurricane speeds” – trucks would be barred from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Passenger traffic is normally cut off at 70 mph, but may be cut off at a lower speed in this case.

Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said those winds could conceivably overturn a semi.

“What comes into play is whether a truck’s loaded, how high it’s loaded,” Spencer said. “Sometimes, winter storms will blow a truck over.”

In addition to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, others in the area that could be shut down by the high winds and rain include the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge Tunnel and the High Rise Bridge, which carries I-64, Carr said.

If the hurricane strikes the area, trucks should avoid it altogether.

“They don’t want to be around here,” Carr said. “I would suggest they avoid the Hampton Roads area.”

Carr said truckers headed to the Chesapeake Bay area could take Interstate 95 north through Richmond to the Washington, DC, area and go into Maryland that way.

Truckers should also check with their brokers, shippers or receivers, Carr said, to see whether the businesses they are headed to are even open, especially those truckers traveling to the area’s many marine terminals, many of which are likely to be closed by flooding if the storm strikes.

“They really do need to consider where they’ve got to go to,” he said. “They’re coming right into a possible flood zone.”

Payne said truckers trying to determine if they can make it to their destination safely can call 1-800-367-ROAD (1-800-367-7623), a Virginia Department of Transportation hot line that provides road conditions information. In addition, electronic message boards along Virginia’s highways will be used to alert drivers, well in advance, if a route is blocked ahead.

The number for North Carolina road conditions is 1-877-DOT-4YOU (1-800-368-4968).

--by Mark H. Reddig, associate editor

Mark Reddig can be reached at mark_reddig@landlinemag.com.