ARDMORE, Okla.-Michelin North America's largest tire plant-the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. facility in Ardmore-has been idled for at least six weeks after being hit by a tornado May 7. None of the 350 employees in the factory at the time were injured, the company said. Civil Defense sirens gave 25 minutes' advance warning of the twister's arrival and the employees were evacuated into emergency storm shelters, actions that ``were instrumental in protecting their lives,'' said Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of Michelin North America.
Michelin declined to estimate the cost of the ``extensive structural damage'' at the Ardmore plant, which primarily makes Uniroyal-and BFGoodrich-brand original equipment tires for General Motors Corp.
Mr. Ghosn did say the company must repair several vital pieces of equipment and doesn't expect to resume full tire production until early August. ``We will rebuild this facility,'' he pledged.
The tornado was averaging wind speeds of 155 mph when it touched down over the Ardmore tire factory at about 5:10 p.m. CDT, according to Doug Speheger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.
The tornado killed three people in Love County, just south of Ardmore, and destroyed more than three dozen homes in the area, he said.
It's not known if any of the company's 1,700 off-duty employees were injured by the storm.
Michelin is shifting production to U.G. Tire's six other North American facilities until the Ardmore operation is up and running again, a spokesman said.
Michelin officials told workers at the factory unofficially it could take three to eight months to rebuild the plant, said Dave Browning, a reporter for CBS affiliate KXII-TV in Ardmore.
Mr. Browning visited the facility just 20 minutes after the tornado struck. ``My first reaction was that it looked like the federal building in Oklahoma City,'' he said.
A reporter and a photographer for The Daily Ardmoreite, who viewed the complex by plane and walked around it after the twister struck, echoed the severity of the damage.
``I think that two to three months (to rebuild the unit) is a conservative guess,'' said photographer Joyce Franks. ``It could be up in three to four months if there's no structural or equipment damage.''
The tornado tore off large sections of the facility's roof, and more than 20 broken pipes were gushing water into the facility, said Ardmoreite reporter Tom Mullins. To make matters worse, it rained off and on throughout the night, he said.
Scott Roper, manager of El Chico, a Mexican restaurant near the plant, said he saw the twister hit the factory.
``We could see the funnel going right down Interstate 35. I could see the tornado hit over there,'' Mr. Roper said. ``When it hit Uniroyal it stayed in the area for a while-I would say 30 seconds. I know that doesn't seem like a lot of time, but it did a lot of damage because a tornado usually only stays down about 15 seconds.
``All of the sudden we saw pieces of the building-pretty big chunks-being thrown hundreds of yards,'' he said. ``We're half a mile away, and you could see it clearly.''
Mr. Roper said he waited 20 minutes before walking down to the factory.
``I just remember how amazed I was,'' he said. ``I had no idea it would be that bad. Uniroyal looked like a shell of what it was.
``It looked like it had been on fire and the fire had already been put out,'' he said. ``. . . Half of the building was gone and the other half was badly damaged.''
Even if the shutdown lasts longer than the company expects, it shouldn't significantly affect Michelin, since the firm is an international corporation, said Saul Ludwig, a securities analyst with Roulston & Co. in Cleveland.
``I would not agree with the scenario that this will give the others an opportunity to gain market share in North America,'' Mr. Ludwig said. ``(Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.) gained market share last year when the strike was on because they were able to bring in tires from elsewhere around the world.''
Harry Millis, an analyst with Fundamental Research Inc., disagrees.
Uniroyal Goodrich was operating at about 85-percent capacity before the twister hit, according to Mr. Millis. Closing a plant that represents about 25 percent of the unit's capacity for any period of time likely will cause some problems, he said.
``For the rest of 1995, I think we'll see an increase in market share for others supplying GM because I doubt Uniroyal will be able to meet its commitments unless they take away from their replacement market. And they won't do that,'' Mr. Millis said.
``From an industry standpoint, there's a silver lining,'' he said. ``It will help others sustain volume in a declining OE market. I would guess Goodyear and (Continental General Tire Inc.) will gain. You may even see Firestone pick up a little bit.''
Although the Ardmore plant's closure is only temporary, Mr. Millis said, ``it's never easy to recapture market share, for whatever reason you've lost it.''
A spokesman for GM declined to say how many tires the automaker sources from the Ardmore plant or whether the factory's temporary shutdown would affect GM's purchasing relationship with Uniroyal Goodrich. ``I will say that we'll do whatever it takes to keep production moving.''