Recovering auto metals from the Joplin tornado

Nobody expected nor wanted the death and destruction created by the tornado that blasted through Joplin, Missouri this spring, but, as always, life and business goes on. In this major clean up effort there was and continues to be frenzied activity to recover metals.

“There are tons of people out there with pickup trucks, trailers, cars, vans – you name it – anything they can haul stuff in. The city opened up the right-of-way all around town, all of the easements. Any type of metal that is out on the city-owned property, people are allowed to pick it up and haul it in.” That’s how Jack Todd, owner of Acme Metals & Recycling described the scene in Joplin six weeks after the May 22 tornado passed through.

Based in Joplin, but luckily missed by the tornado, Acme is primarily involved in industrial recycling of all grades of ferrous and nonferrous scrap metal. Acme also provides demolition, plant dismantling and container services to recover metals. In cooperation with Commodity Resources of New England, Inc., Acme recycles thousands of tons of scrap metal and waste paper each year.  

“When you take a third of the town right through the heart of the residential area, the hospital and the retail district – it looks like a giant grinder has taken everything down to the ground. Everything was sandblasted from the small debris – trees, cars, houses and the people too. That was actually the cause of many fatalities, people losing their skin. You can literally see six miles from one side of the town to the other – monstrous destruction. There are hundreds of FEMA debris trucks working everyday to clean it up, but it’s going to take a long time. They are perhaps one-third done,” Todd reported.

Todd told us that his phone has not stopped ringing for weeks, yet his business is not open to the public since he does contract hauling and services industrial accounts. “Everyone in the area is looking for dumpsters, prices for metals and which metals can and cannot be recycled. I have to turn business away because I’ve run out of containers. I had 40 30-yard dumpsters, but very few extras. Everyone’s had to step up and change the way they do business over the past few weeks.”

“There are constantly lines four and five blocks long to get into scrap yards around here,” Todd continued. “They are swamped. People from the scrap yards are out directing traffic for those wanting to get into the yards, showing them where to put ferrous and nonferrous metals. The piles of metals at yards went from 50 to 60 tons, probably 50 feet wide and suddenly grew to piles 200 to 300 yards long, 6 stories tall and 100 yards wide in a matter of 2 to 3 weeks. There were a lot of vehicles being scrapped at first and there still are. There were 18,000 cars totaled out in Joplin that day according to FEMA.”

Claudia Jeffries, a manager at Freeman Auto Salvage in Joplin has not seen too many wrecked vehicles. “What we have gotten in have been only the ones with liability insurance only. The ones with full coverage get taken by the insurance company and distributed to the different salvage pools in the surrounding area. We’ve received about 110 cars so far.”

Business has picked up tremendously at Steve’s Frame and Auto Body according to owner Steve Chenault. “We were fortunate that our facilities were not hit by the tornado. We had three of our employees who lost their homes totally and others who suffered damage.”

Steve’s has been in business since 1981, employs 22 people and operates a 23,000 sq. ft. full service auto body repair and frame straightening service. “Before the tornado it had been slower than normal because of the economy, which hit the Midwest about a year ago, but this was really a strong shot in the arm for everyone.

“You hate to have business because of someone’s misfortune, but that’s life. It does happen. I feel badly for people who did not have insurance, but I don’t understand our government and FEMA. They were not only sending people here, but to every shop in the area to get a damage estimate, which takes two or three hours to do properly. They wanted us to do them for free and I guess they are going to pay for the repairs.”

He continued, “Probably my biggest complaint is with the insurance industry. Their catastrophe teams come in and write a fast, glance-at-it estimate and the average consumer gets cheated. They figure about half of the actual damage. The consumer takes that money and the insurance companies are saving billions of dollars by doing it that way. It really makes it hard for us, or other repair facilities to take an estimate generated by the insurance company that way and schedule that car based on the information on that sheet because when you get the car in here there’s much more damage.

“Flying debris, just things flying in the air was probably the biggest thing. It broke out windows and damaged sheet metal. A normal fender bender can take two to four days, but a storm damaged vehicle can take three to four weeks. It throws a monkey wrench in your daily operations to take on a complete paint job. We haven’t painted a car complete in probably 10 years. A lot of these cars are damaged on every panel. It’s very time consuming the way the new paints are. Everything has to be disassembled. You have to remove handles and trim off the vehicle. You can’t tape-off with masking tape like we used to.”

“We are now probably running 50 or 60 estimates a day where normally we would write 8 or 10. We are now backlogged about six weeks, but we are trying to save a little time in the midst of all this chaos. We’ve gone in and replaced windshields, back windows and door glasses to make cars temporarily drivable and then schedule other repairs latter on.”

Chenault told us about an unusual phenomenon that has occurred over the past few weeks that is causing even more auto damage. People are visiting Joplin to view the tornado damage. As they drive though town gawking at the rubble they often stop suddenly and the car behind runs into them. “You try to set some time to help these people but it’s hard to tell them that you can’t for several weeks.

“We’ve hired two extra people, but in our industry it’s very hard to get good technicians. Anyone who is any good is usually already working. You have a lot of people that think they are body people, but they are really not and cannot meet our quality standards.

“We have a lot of scrap metal coming off of cars. We have people that have been coming by here for years and haul it over to Commercial Metals Company for recycling,” Chenault concluded.

Danny Vandever, marketing manager at Commercial Metals Company said that the tornado passed five blocks south of their scrap metal yard and they escaped damage. “We were lucky. All of our employees survived it. Several of them lost everything, but we’re helping them all get through it, making sure they are taken care of. We are very fortunate that all of our employees and all their families survived.”

“We put on a few extra people. Anytime we get busy we always direct traffic. We’ve had to do that before the tornado hit. We have a plan in place for when the traffic starts backing out, but we just had to do it a little more often after the tornado. We’ve been here for 40 years at this location right in the middle of town. We’ve always had a lot of peddler and industrial trade so we are always busy,” he said.

“It was busier than normal. There were lots of people out there. The city was allowing them to clean up scrap metal from the curb out. There was not a giant amount of tonnage, but there was a lot of volume, mostly tin, iron and nonferrous. The bulk of it came in from long time customers. The traffic count is way up, but the tonnage is not up that much because the material did not weigh very much, mostly sheet metal, old appliances and things like that, probably accounting for a 25 percent increase in volume.”

“We didn’t get in any cars. My guess they are being stacked up and they’ll be going to salvage pools because most of them were late models cars. I’m sure they will be going to the salvage yards and will be parted out before they are scrapped.”