Transportation companies led by Foster grads are playing a critical role in Puerto Rico’s recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Maria
In fair weather or foul, the American transport companies of Crowley Maritime and TOTE Maritime quietly and capably deliver all manner of everyday goods from the United States mainland to the people of Puerto Rico.
On September 20, the weather was far beyond foul.
Hurricane Maria, a monstrous category 4 storm, hit Puerto Rico with unprecedented vengeance. Pile-driving winds and torrents of rain knocked out power, severed communications, cut off water service and wiped out transit across the entire US territory. Lives were lost, homes ravaged, bridges and roads erased from the map.
Recovery after devastation of this magnitude would present challenges in any location. But because Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean, it meant that every bottle of water, every ration of food, every package of diapers, every medical supply, every battery, every blue tarp and plywood board, every portable generator and backhoe, every gallon of gasoline would have to be shipped in.
While two-thirds of cargo vessels to Puerto Rico hail from foreign ports, it would be American transport companies—and their best-in-class shipping supply chains—coming to the aid of their fellow Americans.
The people, vessels and networks of Crowley and TOTE mobilized immediately after the storm, in partnership with FEMA, the Red Cross and other aid organizations. To the 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico these companies have become, essentially, the supply chain of life itself.
It’s a role that both embrace.
“We’ve made a huge investment in the region and it’s a very important market for us,” says Thomas Crowley, Jr. (BA 1985), chairman and CEO of Crowley Maritime, which has provided transportation and logistics services to Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean region since 1954. “When a disaster like this occurs, we feel compelled to step up our response because we’re good at mobilizing quickly and getting things done. It’s the business we run every day.”
Before they could get back to business, there was the matter of an island-wide power outage to address. Desperate times call for collaborative measures. And with Crowley’s initial barges laden with FEMA cargo, TOTE, its chief competitor in the region, delivered generators to get both companies’ cranes working.
Back to work
And work they did. As soon as the Port of San Juan reopened after the storm, an armada of Crowley vessels—nearly double its usual capacity—began accelerating shipments of humanitarian aid and construction supplies from New Jersey and Florida. By the end of November, Crowley had transported nearly 15,000 FEMA and commercial loads to Puerto Rico, and distributed them to every corner of the island with an army of 400 trucks coordinated by Crowley Logistics.
The companies of Seattle-based Saltchuk responded in kind. A company jet delivered first responders. Saltchuk’s international fleet, Tropical Shipping, transformed barges into floating hotels for hundreds of aid workers. TOTE Maritime immediately began transporting vital loads of relief and rebuilding goods—2,500 40-foot containers full per week. And Foss Maritime stepped in with additional tug and barge units to add cargo capacity as well as assist FEMA with cleanup efforts. “Anything that fits in a container, we’re moving it,” says Tim Engle (MBA 2002), president of Saltchuk.
Engle and Crowley have been moved by the commitment of their employees. Both companies have provided drinking water, food, ice and generators to their people and their families, and turned their local offices into aid stations and sanctuaries, offering hot meals, showers and washing facilities.
“We have people who had to cut themselves out of their houses with chainsaws to get themselves to work,” says Crowley.
“They come to work every day and support the mission,” Engle adds. “How am I going to look them in the eye if I haven’t dedicated resources to help them in their time of need? They’re doing the same thing for us.”
The long haul
And they’ll continue to for some time. Crowley believes that critics have underestimated the extent of this natural disaster in Puerto Rico. “For anyone to think that power would be restored in a month or two was unrealistic,” he says. “That was never our assumption, which is why we spent the money to bring generators in.”
As a reality check, he points out that his company has been delivering replacements for the 65,000 utility poles that were splintered by Maria’s fury, while Foss is transporting hundreds of utility trucks from the US mainland.
“The reality is that these people are in great need and they’re going to be for a long time to come. A relief effort on this scale takes patience and resources.”
None of this, of course, is great for either company’s bottom line.
“Our approach is, let’s take care of the need first and figure out the financials later,” says Engle. “We’re not a non-profit and we’re not completely altruistic. But we are a family business, so we have some leeway to extend our resources.”
Having thrived in a mercurial and sometimes merciless industry over many generations, the family-run enterprises of Crowley and Saltchuk, run by friendly rivals, take “family” to heart.
It’s why they have stepped up in moments of need, from the Ebola crisis in Africa to the Haitian earthquake to Hurricane Harvey in Texas to Puerto Rico today.
“We’re trying to create an environment where you’d be proud to have your kids work,” Engle says. “When you hold yourself to that standard, the rest is easy. It’s how we live. We want to be part of the communities in which we do business. We’ve been in Puerto Rico for 30 years and we want to be there at least 30 more.”
Crowley, whose company has served the island even longer, agrees: “We’re in this for the long haul.”
Keeping up the Jones Act
Crowley Maritime, TOTE Maritime and Foss Maritime operate under the Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, a federal statute that requires all goods transported by water in US domestic commerce to be carried on American vessels. This act has taken some heat in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. But Crowley says that it ensures a viable American maritime industry—American shipbuilders, ships and merchant seamen. This becomes acutely important in times of war or disaster. “In addition to serving the broader interests of America,” he says, “the Jones Act has created an environment where American companies have invested heavily in the supply chain. This is where TOTE and Crowley are building new ships and terminals. We’ve built an American supply chain second to none.”