As Hurricane Irma’s howling winds and pounding rain battered Florida well into the night of September 10, a phone rang at the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). On the line was a representative from the Florida Department of Agriculture. A stockpile of grain in the southeastern part of the state was perilously low, the official said. Without urgent help, Florida dairy farmers would soon run out of animal feed.
This urgent call sparked a remarkable response that delivered 17 railcars of feed to Florida within a matter of days—and provided a glimpse at how private freight rail, public officials and rail customers work together to support communities in times of need.
A Complex Emergency
Shortly after receiving Florida dairy farmers’ SOS, Clay Detlefsen, senior vice president for regulatory and environmental affairs at the NMPF convened representatives from across the federal government and the freight rail industry.
Detlefsen soon discovered that Hurricane Irma had taken its toll on the state’s rail infrastructure. Flooding had washed out segments of track while winds had littered debris, downed power lines and left rail-crossing signals inoperable. Fortunately, pre-storm preparations enabled railroad officials to respond quickly and effectively.
The Great Grain Train
Hours after the initial call, a CSX train with 17 carloads of grain was dispatched from Waycross, Georgia, bound for Florida’s Lake Okeechobee region. Railroad equipment and crews along the route were called-on to ensure the train’s safe arrival. Two cranes lifted downed power lines off tracks, while inspection crews ensured that rail lines in hard-hit areas were structurally sound. In areas where Hurricane Irma had knocked rail crossing signals offline, dairy farmers drove out to monitor the crossings and ensure the train crossed safely on its journey south.
As the train arrived farmers from across the region excitedly snapped photos and video of the approaching train. As a state official later told Detlefsen, “It feels like Christmas morning!”
The magnitude of the effort was not lost on those counting on freight rail. “The dairy and cattle industry is the lifeblood of this community,” wrote Zach Conlin, an official with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “This was an enormous deal to that community and all the residents of Florida that consume that milk on a daily basis.”
In an email to representatives from the freight rail industry and public officials, Detlefsen echoed those same sentiments: “A path to success was established by the great work of so many hard working and dedicated people. I have so much respect for everyone involved and am amazed and nearly speechless that we have been able to avert further hardship to Florida’s residents and businesses in the Ag sector. Today is a good day. A good day, because of folks like you.”