Fleetwood helping in hurricane recovery

October 30, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

WILLIAMSPORT - It has been two months since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.

Now, long after the gripping news accounts in the days and weeks after Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29, the story only rarely captures the front pages of newspapers or is the lead story on television broadcasts.

Still, Hagerstown resident Rich Shewbridge doesn't see his family much these days because he's working 10-hour days at Fleetwood Travel Trailers of Maryland Inc.

Shewbridge said that despite the sacrifices, he is proud that his and his co-workers' labors at the Williamsport plant will aid those who lost their homes when Katrina blasted through the Gulf Coast.


"We knew we had a hard road ahead of us," Shewbridge said. "Yeah, but it's worth it. The family's understanding. They know what we're doing is right."

Since late September, Shewbridge and the employees at Fleetwood, a subsidiary of Riverside, Calif.-based Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., have been building travel trailers for distribution to displaced Katrina victims during what normally is a slow time of year for the industry.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh, we're going to work a lot,'" Shewbridge said with a smile. "But the good thing is we can help people in need."

On Sept. 30, Fleetwood Enterprises announced it had received $170 million in orders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build 7,500 travel trailers and 3,000 single-section manufactured homes to be delivered to the Gulf Coast.

Fleetwood spokeswoman Amy Coleman said the company expects to hire about 1,000 additional workers at its plants across the United States to meet the workload. The homes must be finished by Nov. 30, and the trailers, including those being built in Williamsport, must be completed by the end of the year.

'How can we help'

In Williamsport, General Manager Melinda Ford said that while workers there have been busy, they also have been proud to take part in the relief effort after watching the horrific news accounts in the days following Katrina's wrath.

"I think the first thing we all felt is, your heart goes out to them," Ford said. "I think, from a plant standpoint, there was a sense of urgency to do something. ... They immediately took it as a positive and ... how can we help. It's been extremely positive."

The trailer orders are being distributed among Fleetwood's eight production plants and are being balanced with its commercial orders to dealerships. Ford said if all goes as planned, the Williamsport plant will have made between 800 and 900 trailers of the 7,500 ordered by FEMA.

Ford said she is in the process of hiring an additional 50 workers, for a total of 340, to fill an additional shift at the plant. To balance between the FEMA orders and the company's commercial orders, Ford said, her plant rotates between the two in weeklong shifts.

The increased workload is a relief for Fleetwood workers here after the company shut down its Hancock plant in April, affecting about 300 workers. In addition, the fall normally is a slow time for trailer sales.

Ford said that while she and all of the plant's workers grieved for those affected by Katrina, they feel fortunate to have a chance to help with their recovery, and she hopes those displaced by Katrina will appreciate their labors.

"Hopefully, it will be a blessing for them," Ford said.

With the added shift, the plant now operates with about 200 workers from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and following a break, starts up again with about 150 workers from 9:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. During those hours, the plant is a hive of activity as sections of the trailers are cut out, assembled, wired and finished.

"Everybody has a role, and it all has to come together," Ford said. "We typically will stay on FEMA for a week, two weeks, then we'll switch."

'It's well worth it'

Hagerstown resident Elmer Wills, who started working for Fleetwood after high school about five years ago, said he is happy to play a role in the recovery, but equally happy to be busy.

"I thought it was good because it kept us going," Wills said. "I still work as hard as when I first started here."

The plant produces trailers, starting with the chassis and building from there. The entire process can take from 100 hours for a basic model to more than 200 hours for a more involved version. Workers at the plant are specialized in different areas including carpentry, electricity and plumbing.

Jeffrey McCarty, the plant's yard team leader overseeing the handling of the finished products, said taking part in the relief effort has given him an added sense of pride in his work.

"They don't have any place to live or anything, and I'm glad we were able to help," McCarty said. "As a plant, we were all excited because we like helping people in need."

Like Shewbridge, McCarty said he has been willing to make sacrifices in his personal life to spend more time at the plant.

"It's well worth it," he said. "If we didn't do it, where would they have a place to live?"

Still, McCarty said, he wishes as a plant the workers could go to the Gulf Coast and see the impact of their work on the lives of those left homeless by Katrina.

"It's kind of sad, in a way, because you haven't been there to see what's going on," McCarty said. "You haven't been there to see what they're actually going through."

Coleman said it is too early to tell for sure, but she said she is hopeful Fleetwood will receive additional work orders from FEMA to assist with recovery efforts in Florida following Hurricane Wilma earlier this week.

The Herald-Mail Articles