The U.S. recreational vehicle industry is scrambling right now to help service the enormous emergency housing needs of the U.S. Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In fact, the news is so fast and furious right now that it’s virtually impossible for the RV Business staff to keep up, just as it’s difficult for suppliers, dealers and manufacturers to stay abreast of the minute-by-minute drama being played out this week as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) scours the American landscape for any type of emergency shelter it can find.
“FEMA is buying every available recreational vehicle on the East Coast,” exclaims the FOX News network.
Essentially, from all we can tell, it’s true, even though most manufacturers aren’t inclined to talk about it. In fact, FEMA through a variety of contacts is buying units from all over the country.
The whole process is also wildly “random” and “disorganized,” a “mess” says one source, as companies scramble to service a federal disaster-aid agency that, frankly, doesn’t even answer its phones. Indeed, much of the sales action is occurring between FEMA representatives and dealers nationwide more than it is to date through any sort of official contracts. That could come later.
Some of the purchases are for FEMA-spec units — meaning towable RVs with residential toilets and refrigerators — while others are for “disaster relief coaches” that don’t necessarily adhere to FEMA specifications and can draw more on the stocks of existing industry suppliers.
Suffice to say that, at a time when soaring gas prices threatened to leave many retailers flat, hundreds of U.S. RV dealerships are quickly unloading aging inventories. Towables are the main thing, of course, but even Class C’s have been in demand as well as rental Class A’s for use by the media in addition to charitable and governmental organizations.
Out in Denver, for instance, American Dream Vacations RV rental center planned to ship 14 motorhomes to the Gulf Coast region today (Sept. 6) after the Atlanta-based Cable News Network (CNN) called Friday to rent the coaches — the last ones proprietor John Montgomery had left. “By Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, all of our RVs will be in Louisiana,” Montgomery tells the Denver Post, adding that most of the calls at this point are coming from deep-pocketed companies that can afford RV rental fees ranging from $3,500 to $8,800.
CNN was paying Montgomery, who already sent RVs to Louisiana to house helicopter pilots, a total of $2,000 a unit to have the motorhomes delivered.
People are “desperate” for RV’s down there right now, according to the Washington Post, which told the story of RV owner Lynn Lincecum of Fairbanks, La., who turned down offers from a Texas natural gas company, a Louisiana electric utility and a German television crew before renting his 38-foot Coachmen Sportscoach Class A to a Californian who needed it to house his stricken relatives outside New Orleans.
On the manufacturing level, virtually all of the major manufacturers are involved. “Almost every major manufacturer is talking to somebody about building coaches for this,” says one supplier.
Through depots it has established at facilities in Katy, Texas, and Robertsdale, Ala., Freedom Roads LLC — the nation’s largest retail RV network — has sold FEMA more than 1,200 units over the past 48 hours from stores as distant as Seattle and Syracuse. In fact, FreedomRoads President Marcus Lemonis reports fielding as many as 40 calls an hour right now from smaller dealers hoping to do the same. FreedomRoads, says Lemonis, is trying to help those smaller unaffiliated retailers.
In Muskegon, Mich., brothers Sean and Adam Sobczak of Bonner’s Lakeshore RV Center are undertaking the Herculean task of shipping 700 units to FEMA for sheltering evacuees, the Detroit News reports. The Sobczaks say they’re selling the $20,000, two-bedroom units for about $15,000 a piece. “The order means Lakeshore RV, which typically sells about 800 recreational vehicles a year, will have to prepare close to that number in a matter of weeks,” the newspaper stated.
Plus, the dealership is sending an additional 200 RVs south that insurance companies are renting to assist their customers. “It’s hurricane hustle,” said Lakeshore RV co-owner Sean Sobczak, 34. “It’s been chaos for us, but you can see people are frustrated and upset. We want to get them there as quick as we can, so we are working as hard and as long as we can.”
Of course, the order is a sales boom for the Sobczaks — about $10.5 million in revenue for the 700 vehicles going to the government. Although the dealership had only 100 units in stock when the hurricane hit, the brothers summarily ordered 600 trailers from Forest River Inc. in Elkhart, Ind. Meanwhile, a half-dozen Lakeshore employees are working 12-hour shifts to prep the 120 units that arrive daily — virtually as fast as the manufacturer can make them.
About 20 volunteers are helping to load the vehicles with nonperishable food and supplies, and about 100 drivers have been lined up to get units to the South.