Around 5 p.m. Central Time on April 28, everyone had left Mid-South Auction with the exception of Bob Sullivan and a nighttime security guard.
Throughout that afternoon, Sullivan — the vice president and general manager of the Pearl, Miss. auction— had been receiving tornado warnings on his phone.
But just before 7 p.m., the tone of those weather messages would change sharply and suddenly — that is, it was no longer a tornado warning. It was now an emergency alert.
“So, I ran and got the guard, and I told him, ‘Hey, look, you need to leave the guard station. Come on inside,’” Sullivan said in a recent interview with Auto Remarketing.
The two of them made it to the e-commerce manager’s office, which is in the middle of the building and has no windows. Less than five minutes later, a dangerous tornado approached from the south.
And as Sullivan put it, it ripped the auction arena and the check-in building “all to hell.”
As it turns out, there were an estimated 66 tornadoes on that Monday alone in the South, according to this story from May 7 on The Weather Channel's website. As for Mid-South, fortunately, both Sullivan and the security guard were unharmed, as the main office was damaged only minimally compared to what happened elsewhere at the auction, where a nightmarish mess awaited.
With fire lines busted, water sprayed all over the auction arena, whose roof was clipped off. And all that was inside was destroyed, Sullivan said.
“It looks like we’re going to have to rebuild … the adjuster is still working on it,” he said. “They’ve had their forensic engineer come up to check the red metal. That’s your steel beams. They said all that is OK, but probably, most of the other stuff is all going to have to be tore down and rebuilt.
“Basically, we just started rebuilding. Obviously, with that being Monday night (that the Tornado came through) and us being a Tuesday sale, Tuesday’s sale was cancelled because there was nothing working. We didn’t even have power or anything,” Sullivan said. “We had a gas leak. The power was off.”
Not to mention, there was vehicle damage as well.
Given the pressure changes that come with a tornado, he said, most cars had one or more windows blown out, some with all windows destroyed.
Additionally, the tornado wrought physical damage upon some of the cars.
“We have 250 acres of woods that border the south side of the auto auction. And that’s where the tornado came from,” Sullivan said. “It was just snapping off the top of trees and throwing the top half of pine trees like javelins all over the parking lot.”
In fact, a 15- to 16-inch piece of wood that slivered away from a tree went through the brake drum of a vehicle. An air conditioning unit was tore off the roof of the men’s restroom, tossed across the parking lot, landing on and smashing the roof of a car, before bouncing off and landing between two other vehicles.
All told, an estimated 300 to 350 vehicles belonging to dealers or national accounts were damaged.
(The auction notified all the customers whose vehicles had been damaged and offered to do the repairs, be it glass or body work, at Mid-South’s pricing. Some accepted to varying degrees, others were still waiting for insurance companies to come out.)
However, Sullivan and his team were determined to bounce back. They began the cleanup the week of the tornado and managed to have a sale that following Tuesday, May 6, at the regularly scheduled time. The auction ran two lanes outdoors, implementing its mobile auction set-up (or private-label, as Mid-South calls them) on site.
The auction has a trailer that is fully stocked with all the technology one would find at a traditional auction arena. It sister facility, Charleston Auto Auction, has another trailer that it brought down to Mississippi for the May 6 event.
“We positioned them facing each other, ran two lanes with about 360 or 370 vehicles,” Sullivan said of the sale, which ended up having a sale rate of a little more than 50 percent.
Continuity Plan Pays Off
Coincidentally, Mid-South was hit by a hail storm almost exactly a year earlier.
But two or so years ago, Sullivan was asked by corporate headquarters at American Auto Auction Group (of which Mid-South is a member) to put together a business continuity plan and share it with the other members of AAAG.
And this ended up being a life saver for the auction.
“As soon as that sale was over with the mobile trailers, the following Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we erected what they call a mega structure with Mahaffey (Fabric) Structures out of Memphis. The contractor had four auction blocks built. We moved all the electric, all of the data lines into the tent and we run four auction lanes just like any other auction,” he said. “As a matter of fact, it’s kind of neat, especially in the summertime. We set it up like a carnival atmosphere. We’ve got snow cones and popcorn; we cook out hotdogs and hamburgers during the sale, and we operate out of the tent.
“The dealers locally have been extremely supportive of it. I think everyone was probably surprised at how fast we reacted and we really didn’t lose a step on sales,” Sullivan added.
Later, Sullivan said this of the plan: “I think the business continuity plan helps when you know who to go to. How do you get all of these people pulled in and ready to go? Well, No. 1, I already knew who to call. As a matter of fact, this thing actually help me update it. But I specifically addressed tornadoes and hurricanes in the business continuity plan, so everybody knew, pretty much, what to do and what the contact information was.
“That night, you figure, myself and the security guard were the only ones here. We had a gas leak, we had water blowing and going everywhere. I already knew who we had to call,” Sullivan said.
He simply took the binder containing the plan, called the gas company for the leak and informed the utilities that they were a commercial business that took a hit from the tornado, and enacted the plan as outlined.
Sullivan also called another contact, Michael De la Mora at Stellar Restoration, who had 22 roofing employees come to Mid-South to assist in emergency clean-up tasks like repairing gas leaks, picking up debris and cutting/removing dumpsters filled with torn metal.
Sullivan recommends other auctions take a similar route and develop a plan of their own.
“I think the reason we recovered so fast, No. 1, we went through the hail storm so I already had a recent list of people and contacts,” he added. The employee call list, he said, was similar to call lists from his experience in the military, where it is broken down by sections and everyone has a primary and alternate contact number.
Sullivan stressed the need for such a continuity plan, “especially in an area that you know you’re going to have some severe weather, whether it’s a hurricane or tornado or whatever.”
He added: “Everybody says, ‘I won’t ever need it’ … (but) yeah, actually, it makes the process a lot easier. So, rather being nervous and worried about what am I going to do, you go to your three-ring binder, take it out and just start going through” the plan.
Support from Consignors, Dealers
When the tornado came through, it wasn’t their own cars that dealers and consignors were asking about. No, they were more concerned with the well-being of the auction employees and asking if they could help.
“The first thing out of both the national accounts and the dealer body, they all asked, ‘Is everybody OK? Was anybody hurt?’” Sullivan said, noting that “everybody was more concerned about the folks at the auto auction … I thought it was very nice.
“I’m like, ‘Geez, they’re worrying about the people more so than their property,’” he added. “And the dealers, like I said, they have been very supportive of the auction as have the national accounts that we have.
“Everybody understands, hey, it was an act of God, but no one got hurt and everybody was happy about that.”