by David Hench
The federal government is diverting hundreds of truckloads of bagged ice cubes from the Gulf Coast hurricane-relief effort to cold storage in Portland and other cities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has more ice than it can use in the hurricane zone and wants to keep it in storage for use in a future emergency.
But critics, including some truck drivers who have been paid $800 a day while hauling the same loads for a week or more, say the process seems like a waste of taxpayers’ money.
“The $9,000 they’re paying me to move this load should have gone to some family down there,” said Loren Reeves, who hauled his load of ice from New York state to Alabama before being sent to Maine. “There is definitely millions being wasted that could go to people who need it.”
Reeves’ truck was one of several lined up at AmeriCold Logistics’ refrigerated storage facility on Read Street, unloading pallets stacked with 25-pound bags.
Georgia-based AmeriCold Logistics provides cold storage facilities across the country, and many of the ice deliveries have been sent to its facilities in places like Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
A spokesman for the AmeriCold facility, which has 1.7 million cubic feet of storage, would not comment on the operation. But local officials said they are expecting 220 truckloads of ice to be delivered here through Thursday, with trucks staging at a city lot off outer Congress Street near the Maine Turnpike.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, residents of the region needed ice, and emergency officials started ordering it from near and far. The government ended up delivering more than 180 million pounds of ice to the area and had more than it could use, said FEMA spokeswoman Kathy Cable.
“People go pick up ice and take it back to their house because they don’t have electricity. With Katrina, most of these people don’t have houses so they didn’t come get ice,” Cable said.
That caused some trucks to sit idle in places like Selma, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., while others were redirected to remote storage facilities like Portland.
“It’s more economical to store them and be able to use them right away. When we need it, we need all of it and we need it now. It’s better to have it stored than to go out and buy it,” Cable said.
She said she did not know how much it is costing to divert the ice trucks because the Army Corps of Engineers ships ice and water into disaster areas for FEMA.
In Portland, ice ranges from $64 per ton when purchased in bulk to $300 per ton when purchased retail by the bag. Trucks coming to Portland from the Gulf Coast have been carrying between 15 and 23 tons.
The Army Corps of Engineers said last week that 6,260 truckloads of ice had been delivered to the hurricane area and it has not ordered new commodities since Sept. 5, according to its Web site. It anticipates that it has enough ice to last through the 2005 hurricane season.
FEMA has 50 truckloads of ice and water in Fort Worth, Texas, in anticipation of Tropical Storm Rita, Cable said.
Truckers interviewed Monday have been told they may be called on to head south with the ice stored in Portland if a storm bearing down on the Florida Keys creates a demand.
Johnny Jennings hauled a load of ice from Cincinnati to Joplin, Ark., where it was loaded into a quarry cave being used as an ice house. He hauled another load from Fort Wayne, Ind., that was distributed directly to people who needed it near Hattiesburg, Miss.
He set out with his third load from Indianapolis on Sept. 9 bound for Meridian, Miss., then he was sent to Selma before being dispatched to Portland.
“It’s been a lot of riding and a lot of sitting,” he said Monday, leaning against a fence at AmeriCold while 24 pallets of bagged ice, wrapped in plastic, were transferred by forklift from his truck to the company’s freezers.
Rick Benn, who had been shepherding his load of ice from Indianapolis for two weeks, said he’s worked disaster relief before, but this was the worst. He couldn’t understand why he trucked a load of ice all the way to the deep South, waited for a week in Alabama, then hauled it to northern New England.
“It’s the government. What do you expect?” he said.
Still, he’s being paid $800 a day. He would normally spend almost half that money on fuel, but when he’s waiting instead of hauling, his operating expenses are minimal.
Reeves, who is from New York, said he’s gone from feeling upbeat about his disaster work to feeling guilty.
“I thought I was doing some real good,” he said.
Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.