When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last Sept. 20, it knocked out power and devastated the island of 3.4 million residents. But several tire dealerships were prepared and enjoyed a surge in business in the ensuing months of chaos and recovery.
With the help of generators, several tire dealers who spoke to Tire Business said they were very busy in the aftermath repairing and replacing tires on vehicles trying to navigate damaged roads covered with nails from stripped roofs.
Before the hurricane, the economy was very bad, according to Josue Correa, president of Correa Tire Distributors. But during the recovery efforts, the construction business on the island has surged.
"Everyone who had equipment, like backhoes, loaders and those equipment used in construction, had a lot of work. There's no more (spare) equipment for all the demand for construction and paving. And that all needs tires," Mr. Correa said.
"Almost all that equipment was stuck at the companies without any work, so all those machineries were out of work (before the hurricane)…. There is still a lot of work coming. That's good for the tire business, too."
However, the boon in business has been offset by frustrations over delayed product deliveries, unreliable electric service and stalled scrap tire disposal.
High winds and rains damaged buildings and equipment, forcing some small tire shops to shutter permanently. Others are operating but still waiting for insurance money to make repairs, while thousands of residents have packed up and moved off the island.
"It's a different Puerto Rico," said Primo J. Delgado, owner and president of World Wide Tires Inc., a tire retailer and wholesaler.
"We lost long-time shops, mom-and-pop tire shops. They closed down, never to open again.
"There are a lot of small businesses down on the island that just went away and some of them they just closed because they didn't have any power and they moved to the states....
"In the tire business, there are less players. For the ones that stayed, it's a little bit better. But we do have the problem of scrap tires, and most of us have not collected the insurance checks yet. And we still have problems getting merchandise from the U.S.," Mr. Delgado said.
"It was like a war…. The first week I got in line to get diesel in a couple of 55-gallon drums. I did a line of 11 hours," he said.
"It was a hard time but we managed. We survived.... You have to think outside the box to survive. We're doing that in terms of my business. Not everybody is going to survive."
World Wide Tires
World Wide Tires — dba Sabana Tire in Guaynabo and Bayamon Tire Distributors in Bayamon — is still waiting for insurance reimbursement on the damage to its facilities, Mr. Delgado said.
The main warehouse in Bayamon lost 60 percent of its roof, and the company lost one delivery truck when the storm blew it off a cliff.
Mr. Delgado, who has been in business for 23 years, said he remembers when Hurricane Georges, a Category 3 hurricane, devastated the island in September 1998.
"I did learn from the '98 experience from Georges, and I know we are going to sell a lot of tires because the roads are not in good shape. There are thousands and thousands of nails in the streets because a lot of people lost their roofs," he said.
"I remember what happened (in 1998). This (Hurricane Maria) was like five times worse. We still have 200,000 people without power," he said.
The Bayamon store went without power and operated with emergency generators for five months. It had lost power Sept. 5 when Hurricane Irma hit and didn't get electricity service back until Feb. 1, he said.
"We have emergency generators in each store. We have gasoline air compressors just in case.… For the last year to year-and-a-half, we've been using battery impact tools. So we manage. With a lot of difficulties, we manage.
"At the beginning there was no communications, so we had to be creative. Cell phones towers were scarce because the island was blacked out completely for a week. Everybody was running on generators."
He said he was able to connect to a Wifi hotspot, build a small network and connect wireless phones.
Some employees took a week to get back to work; some of them lost everything, including their houses and vehicles, he said. Every employee was affected in some way.
"September was a complete disaster in terms of sales. But those of us who kept their stores running, sales have jumped about 40 percent," Mr. Delgado said.