Tropical VP: ‘Without a doubt, Maria is the fiercest storm I’ve ever seen…’
By Hilary Reeves
As TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and Tropical Shipping employees continue picking up the pieces of lives shattered by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a picture of conditions on the ground is slowly coming into focus.
“Hurricane Hugo was Tropical’s first experience with a major hurricane,” said Mark Chapman, Vice President of Business Operations at Tropical. “I remember leading a team of people who went down there to rebuild in St. Croix, and I’ve been to several other ports after other hurricanes. But without a doubt, Maria is the fiercest storm I’m ever seen come through the Caribbean.”
Eight of the company’s 23 Caribbean island destinations were completely decimated by the storm, including Dominica, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, St. Thomas, Tortola, and Turks & Caicos.
“Normally, a storm may cause significant damage on a single island,” said Chapman. “and might catch one or two additional islands in its path This was incredible. This is the first time that we’ve ever had eight of the locations that we service all very badly damaged at one time. We’ve never experienced anything like that before.”
Chapman said the company’s recovery efforts are centered both on addressing immediate customer needs and the personal lives of island employees.
“Our first focus is restoring our workforce,” he said. “Until our employees are comfortable enough to come do their jobs, we really can’t help anybody.”
Tropical is well versed in hurricane relief. Four “disaster recovery” trailers packed with satellite communications and other emergency supplies were immediately deployed.
“The problem is, we have four trailers, not eight,” Chapman said. “We’ve never had to provide relief for eight locations at once. It stressed our ability to get everything up and running.”
In addition to supplying employees with food, water, ice, a generator and gas to run it, and a host of outdoor camping supplies, the company deployed 80 battery-operated fans, 300 roof tarps and over 30 “sun showers” – a five-gallon plastic bag that can be filled with water, hung from a tree, and used as a makeshift shower.
Operationally speaking, all ports are now up and running, though Chapman acknowledged that damage to the ports makes it difficult to maintain a regular schedule.
“The operations are moving along okay,” he said. “We couldn’t get into St. Croix for awhile because they found several containers and a sunken sail boat in the harbor, and there’s still only one working crane in St Maarten. We also had to send several additional mechanic down and make some equipment repairs on St. Thomas. We’re doing everything we can to restore full and timely service for our customers.”
The problem, Chapman said, is that Tropical has been inundated with cargo, and there are only so many ships to move it on. Some needs, such as the bucket trucks and poles used to restore power, are prioritized.
“We’ve moved a lot of trucks and about 200 flat racks of poles already” he said, “and they take up a lot of space on the ships.”
“We’ve jokingly referred to it as a ‘Hotel California,’” he said. “We can get people down there commercially, but we can’t get them out right away. The waiting list is so great that it will be multiple weeks until we can get everyone out.”
Chapman said the company did successfully deploy RV trailers on both St. Thomas and St. Croix for employee volunteers to live during their stay.
“We asked for volunteers to fly in and work so our regular employees can get out and tend to repairs and anything else they need to do personally to rebuild their lives in the short-term,” he said. “Every week, we’ve had two to three staff members from Florida make the trip. We’ve been able to give our islanders a little time away, and I think we’ll do more of that as the ability to fly in and out gets more robust.”