GM Races to Rebuild Oklahoma SUV Plant

Tuesday, June 10th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The roof rumbled and the wind shrieked as a swirling funnel of red mud peeled the metal siding off General Motors' paint shop.

The autoworkers crawled out of a tornado shelter when the howling stopped. Their jaws dropped and their eyes widened as they walked into the muggy, evening air last month.

``Our workplace was in shambles,'' said David Melius, a paint shop maintenance supervisor. ``We were completely astonished.''

They knew immediately they couldn't keep churning out GMC Envoy XLs and Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXTs _ the plant that produced more than 3,000 sport utility vehicles a week would have to shut down.

The auto giant has been racing to rebuild ever since. At first, there was talk of a September reopening. Now GM officials are hoping sport utility vehicles will start rolling off the line by the end of June.

The company cut production forecasts by 20,000 for the second quarter because of the Oklahoma City plant, which accounts for less than 3 percent of GM's North American production of 110,000 vehicles per week.

The company won't say how much money it will lose because of the twister. There is no waiting list yet for the SUVs, but dealers' stock is beginning to dwindle.

``It represents a lot of sales and a lot of opportunity to make happy customers out there,'' said Troy Clarke, GM's vice president for manufacturing and labor relations in Detroit.

The May 8 twister toppled two cooling towers, plowed through the power station and shredded much of the paint shop into metal scraps. But the way it played with employees' cars was the strongest testament to its power.

More than 30 vehicles were swirled into a three-deep pile, thick with red Oklahoma dirt, in the middle of the parking lot. Other cars blew away; two weren't even on plant grounds.

``The parking lot looked like a war zone,'' plant engineer Bill Roberts said.

A second tornado struck Oklahoma City the next night. In two days, one person was killed and more than 100 people were injured. The tornadoes destroyed 35 businesses and hundreds of homes, causing at least $100 million in damage.

A month later, construction workers in orange vests walk the paint shop roof and hang from its walls. Men in hard hats buzz by on four-wheelers and massive cranes chew up metal pipes the tornado tumbled.

Giant stadium lights glare through the night so the crews can work 24 hours a day.

As more than 1,000 contractors roam the 430-acre plant, construction leaders meet GM officials in a semiformal dinning room that has been dubbed ``the command center'' since the tornado. Papers taped to the walls designate teams of clean-up crews, roofers and electricians.

They make plans to get a forklift to haul out the hundreds of SUVs without insides damaged in the paint shop. They discuss lifting debris out of the pond, an electrician who got a particle in his eye and whether the spring's stormy weather will prohibit the 25 cranes from operating.

Restoring power and clearing the 508 vehicles stranded in the general assembly area was first priority.

For 20 days, freshly painted SUVs sat on a motionless conveyor belt in the dark. New power poles lit up the assembly line the last week in May, and 800 of the plant's nearly 3,000 workers returned to finish the vehicles. They're back home again, waiting for a call to return for good.

``It has been frustrating,'' said Peggy Walker, a worker in the final inspection area. ``We're anxious to get back to work. But in Oklahoma, you learn to expect things like this.''

Mostly, they're glad no one was killed.

A siren wailed and the intercom told employees to ``take shelter!'' 22 minutes before the twister struck. It wasn't the first time GM's Oklahoma City workers had lined up to head underground; they sought shelter May 3, 1999, when an F-5 twister barreled through central Oklahoma and killed 44 people.

That one just missed the plant.

``It's like there's a big sign out there that says, 'Tornadoes This Way,''' plant spokeswoman Kathy Oden said.