LP Gas

Battered Bayou

Ever since Woody Blossman opened his first store in 1951, Mississippi-based Blossman Gas has had to endure its share of hardships to grow to become the nation’s 10th largest propane retailer.

Blossman’s Bay St. Louis, Miss. store was the hardest hit. The trailer above was brought in as a temporary office and sleeping quarters for one of the company’s displaced gas drivers.

After taking a direct hit from the worst U.S. natural disaster since the San Francisco earthquake 100 years ago, the employee-owned marketer is finding strength in its staff and a compassionate nation to rally from the devastation caused when Hurricane Katrina crashed ashore Aug. 29.

The storm inflicted devastation of biblical proportions on the Gulf Coast and spurred the most massive relief effort in history. Officials say the total tab for recovery may exceed $200 billion, more than the four consecutive hurricanes that slammed through Florida in 2004. The unfolding death toll across five states is in the thousands, and more than 1 million residents were displaced – a humanitarian crisis on a scale unseen in the United States since the Great Depression.

Byron Smith of Blossman’s Vancleave, Miss. branch (foreground) checks a map with Jerry Register of the Selma, Ala. branch. Register is one of many company volunteers aiding recovery efforts.

As the city of New Orleans waited for the fetid floodwaters to recede to count its dead, Blossman Gas employees rallied from personal tragedy to join rescue efforts in neighboring towns that rely on propane to fuel their homes. Dozens of Blossman staffers joined the 10,000 workers from 20 states and several Canadian provinces to reach out to emergency crews, customers, neighbors and friends struggling to cope with the crisis.

Company President Stuart Weidie says the devastation is hard to comprehend.

Blaine Howze mucks more than six inches of mud covering the floor of the Bay St. Louis store.

“Media reports usually are a bit dramatized, but they aren’t in this case,” he said in a telephone interview from a temporary command center set up at the Blossman warehouse and shop in Ocean Springs – about 75 miles east of Lake Pontchartrain and just a stone’s throw north of Biloxi – just one week after the storm hit.

“Either homes are not there at all, or there are just pieces of homes still standing,” says Weidie. “And there are quite a few tanks still out in the marsh. There’s just a lot of destruction. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people without much left. But surprisingly, everyone’s outlook and attitude is extremely good.”

Scott Weatherford, manager of Blossmans Douglasville, Ga. branch fills cylinders to provide hot water for the portable showers at Camp Hope (the Gulf Power relief compound). In the background is the dining hall tent.

Blossman, which has 72 outlets in eight Southeast states, operates 27 stores in southern Mississippi. Four along the Mississippi coast (Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, Pascagoula and Vancleave) took a direct hit and were knocked out by the storm’s fury.

Twelve of Blossman’s 75 local employees lost their homes to the storm, and another dozen sustained severe damage that caused them to relocate to temporary accommodations. But that didn’t stop them from rolling up their sleeves to begin the long, arduous task of rebuilding their business and their community.

Five Blossman stores along the Gulf Coast took a direct hit when Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore Aug. 29.

“Some of our folks who have no homes were out here working shortly after the storm,” Weidie said proudly of staff members who were putting in long hours in the 90-degree heat of early September.

The company lost two bobtails and four service vehicles out of a fleet of 36 in the area, according to Weidie.

One company office building, located about two miles inland in Waveland, was completely destroyed. The storm virtually wiped out the entire town of 7,000 about 35 miles east of New Orleans, prompting state officials to say it took a harder hit from the wind and water than any other town along the coast. Weidie said only the building’s walls were left, with marks showing that the water had reached the eaves.

Thousands of propane storage tanks litter communities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama in the wake of the storm.

About one-third of the 10,000 propane customers serviced by the company’s Gulf Coast stores lost their homes or storage tanks – or both. Weidie estimates there are 1,000 to 1,500 150-and 250-gallon customer tanks that floated away in the flooding. Crews are picking up 80 to 120 daily.

“Within eight weeks we expect to see some normalcy,” he said. “But it will be two to five years before that will happen in certain areas. These people will literally be starting from rubble up.”

Stuart Weidie, Blossman Gas President

Blossman Gas will survive the calamity, even as its employees struggle to piece their lives back together.

“First, in terms of our people, we told those folks to take care of their personal needs first; don’t worry about work. We have been trying to encourage them to take care of what they need to personally to get their lives back in order,” said Weidie, who was born in Pascagoula and raised in Ocean Springs.

“Secondly, these are people without jobs or homes. The biggest thing we can do is keep Blossman healthy. We still have other offices. We are trying to get them to pick up some of the slack. We have assured everybody that we are fine; the company is fine. It will have a financial impact, obviously, but we can handle it.”

One week earlier, Weidie was not so confident as he and other company officials prepared for the worst.

During the storm and the day after, Weidie and Jessie Johnson, Blossman’s vice president of sales and marketing, were in the company’s Asheville, N.C., office setting up a central communications point. Employees who evacuated or found themselves displaced by the massive damage were able to go to another Blossman site, from which they contacted the Asheville center.

“Actually, text messaging was the most effective way for us to communicate,” Weidie said. “You couldn’t call out because the regular phone lines were all out, but the text messages were able to get through. Our folks went to our locations and checked in, and we tracked them as they arrived. By Sunday, we had accounted for everyone.”

For Blossman employees in the battered bayou, the news was good, as everybody was safe and healthy. One store manager lost a family member in the storm, but his immediate family got out to Louisiana, Weidie said.

With all employees accounted for, the Blossman team went to work to address safety concerns, aid rescue efforts and restore service to customers.

About 25 company crews from other parts of the country headed for the Gulf Coast to help their local colleagues. They brought badly needed equipment, trucks with winches, trailers and supplies.

“We feel have enough crews and people to meet our needs. We received lots of calls from people in the industry who want to help. It’s greatly appreciated, but we don’t even have a full assessment of the damage yet,” Weidie said.

Once the emergency service crews cleared downed trees and power lines, Blossman workers were able to get offices and cylinder refill sites back up and running within days so the community could get the propane it needed to power generators, water heaters and cookers.

Weidie said the demand on propane as an emergency fuel was intense. Blossman’s stock of more than 250 cylinders sold out in three days.

The damaged company’s stores are expected to be back up and running by mid-September. Eight two-man crews then turned their focus to recovering missing tanks, a task that was expected to take weeks to complete.

According to news reports, some 10,000 workers from 20 states and several Canadian provinces marshaled within a week to restore order in the region. The service crews were put up in large tents that had areas for laundry and food services. All of the cooking and laundry equipment ran on propane, as did the generators and mobile communications towers.

One of the National Guard units even set up in a field next to the Blossman warehouse in Ocean Springs.

“We felt it was extremely important to make ourselves available to power, water and communications companies so that they could go out and get their stuff done,” Weidie said.

Many area residents are trying to live in homes that were substantially damaged by the hurricane’s wrath. That creates a safety concern when it’s time to relight the system.

“We are trying to do complete leak and system integrity checks before putting them back in service,” says Weidie. “We have an internal rule that tanks cannot be put in service unless there is someone in the home to allow us to check. We blow out the full line and pay close attention to the valving because it may have been damaged.”

Weidie estimates that 30 percent of the systems sustained water damage to the valves.

As Blossman employees worked the local streets, Highway 49 filled with a convoy of U.S. Air Force, National Guard, Army and other groups streaming in to assist the recovery. The outpouring of good will from throughout the nation left an impression on Weidie.

“There are thousands of people coming down, so help truly is on its way,” he said. “Everyone is pitching in – the military, Salvation Army, private companies, churches. It’s just remarkable to see the work that the churches and other organizations along the coastal areas are pulling together to meet the needs of those who need help.”

Weidie was especially supportive of the program for the propane industry to get product into the region through a voucher program set up through the Mississippi Propane Gas Association and the Salvation Army.

“Blossman Gas appreciates all the help that has been offered and the assistance provided. I think the biggest thing that everyone can do is just continue to be supportive in whatever manner they can to get goods in along the coast and to New Orleans.”

Employees from other Blossman locations pitched in too, filling a warehouse with an assortment of items for local residents. The company’s Mississippi employees have been able to tap into that supply; the rest was taken to the Salvation Army to be distributed in the community as needed.

“It makes you feel real proud of our entire organization,” Weidie said.

The tragedy has been particularly tough for Weidie as a native son and the man the entire Blossman Gas family looks to for leadership.

“It has been heart wrenching to see. But we all are just so focused on taking care of what needs to be done that we have not had too much time to dwell on anything but the task at hand. It is what it is,” he said.

“I am trying to offer people here a sense of security, to assure everyone that the company is good and that they still have jobs. We have so many fine people here at Blossman. We understand and appreciate that. Maintaining a family atmosphere is something that we work at constantly, and we are working to try to give them that security.”