NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Mark Evangelista pulls his big rig out of Gramercy, bound for San Antonio with a load of Louisiana sugar.
“At one point in time, everything that you own has been on the back of one of these trucks,” Evangelista said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the fact that America’s economy rolls on the back of the nation’s trucking fleet.
According to the American Trucking Association, nearly 71% of all freight tonnage in the U.S. moves on the back of trucks.
10.5 billion tons of freight annually requires more than 3.6 million heavy-duty trucks and more than 3.5 million professional truck drivers.
"We're out here away from our families trying to provide the best we can for your families," Evangelista said. "It's been tough out here for all of us."
While Evangelista has driven a big rig for a couple of years, drivers with decades on the nation’s highways say the coronavirus has presented new challenges.
"It's a very new experience for everybody," said Don Davis, a driver with 36 years experience on the highways.
"We're having a hard time finding showers, food," Davis said. "Most of the restaurants are closed down, even in the truck stops. So, if we do get something, we're lucky."
March proved a busy time for Evangelista, Davis and other drivers who work at Gramercy-based Frisard's Trucking.
“Then, April came and April has been a logistical nightmare altogether,” said Cully Frisard, a second-generation owner of the company.
As the oil shale fracking industry hit rock bottom and ports experienced a drop in trade, Frisard said truckers that cater to those industries moved into the general trucking business and caused a drop in daily rates.
“It’s dropping the price significantly,” Frisard said. “We’re seeing a reduction of the spot market, 50-60 percent reduction.”
The company's longer term contracts are not affected, but Frisard said smaller operations that form the backbone of the nation's trucking fleet are at risk.
"My fear is the smaller companies, the 1-50 trucker operations, that don't have the contracts we have that will go under."
When the economy recovers, Frisard said the country could face a severe shortage of trucks and drivers, "because drivers don't want to get back into a business that's hurting them like it is today."
While he once project business for a 12-24 month period, Frisard said it is impossible to do a 30-day projection under current economic conditions.
"So, we're living day by day," Frisard said. "As the industry changes, we have to change with the industry."
Despite the challenges on the nation's highways, including finding a place to park as truckers descend on truck stops with food and showers, both Evangelista and Davis feel a sense of appreciation from other motorists, including people waving at them or giving a thumbs up.
"I don't know if all drivers feel the same, but for me personally, this is my way of serving my country," Evangelista said. "This is my way of making sure my country stays afloat, making sure that the people of this country get everything that they need."
Frisard’s Trucking even stages a nightly patriot music and light display on a company trailer parked at the headquarters along Airline Highway.
“I think as America gets back to work in the next 30 days, hopefully, we’ll see a strong economy again,” Frisard said.