Special Report: 2 Years After Katrina

Pupils disembark a bus operated by First Student in Jefferson Parish. The contractor began providing service for the parish after Katrina because of a shortage of bus owner/operators.
Pupils disembark a bus operated by First Student in Jefferson Parish. The contractor began providing service for the parish after Katrina because of a shortage of bus owner/operators.

Among the vast destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina two years ago, one of the iconic images was a flooded lot filled with hundreds of school buses in New Orleans.

The storm that ravaged much of the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,600 people, took a colossal toll on schools and their transportation systems — those around New Orleans in particular.

School buildings were rendered uninhabitable by severe wind and floodwater. Buses were soaked beyond repair. More than a million people — students and school personnel among them — fled the area. Some have yet to return.

In the two years since Katrina — and the subsequent, also-devastating Hurricane Rita — schools have been reopened, new buses have been bought and student enrollment has rebounded. Distinct challenges linger, and recovery continues, but school officials have sought to return to a climate of normalcy.

Yet as the second anniversary of Katrina drew near, a new threat — Hurricane Dean — approached the Gulf of Mexico. Emergency procedures again came under scrutiny. The Louisiana Department of Education (DOE) surveyed school bus operations across the state to gauge how many buses could be made available for evacuation.

“We’re diligently trying to get an ironclad plan,” says Larry Ourso, a DOE consultant involved in pupil transportation.

Hurricane Dean didn’t end up finding its way to the U.S. The storm passed just south of Jamaica and made landfall in southern Mexico. But the time of warning was seen as a valuable exercise in preparedness.

“It’s been a good test for us to make sure we have our procedures in place,” says Gary Martin, transportation operations coordinator for St. Charles Parish Public Schools.

The need for constant assessment and adaptation is clear. George Horne, a New Orleans-area pupil transportation consultant, says that FEMA contractors are still picking up debris and trimming damaged trees in many areas, which can lead to road closures and additional traffic hazards.

“Bus routes sometimes have to be changed on a daily basis to accommodate temporary detours,” Horne says.

Here’s an in-depth look at school bus operations in five parishes around New Orleans and how they’ve dealt with the effects of Katrina.

St. Bernard
St. Bernard Parish extends east of the Mississippi River, south of Lake Borgne, to the Gulf of Mexico. A storm surge from Katrina caused several breaches in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, and nearly the entire parish was flooded.

Kathy Gonzales, transportation supervisor for St. Bernard Parish Public Schools, says that in anticipation of Katrina, her department had moved its fleet of about 70 buses to higher areas in the parish. But the floodwaters still rose enough to destroy all but about eight of the buses. Some floated far from where they had been parked, so the department dispatched a tow truck to find and return them.

The department also lost its office and maintenance facility, where Gonzales estimates the floodwater to have been between 15 and 20 feet high.

“We lost everything,” Gonzales says. “Computers, tools — and we had really good tools that we had just bought. We tried to clean them, but whatever was in that water was so corrosive that we couldn’t get them clean.”

The school system reopened in mid-November 2005 — about two-and-a-half months after Katrina — with one combined school, down from 14 schools. Enrollment had dropped from about 8,800 to 334.

The transportation department was down to six drivers. FEMA provided a mobile home for a temporary office. The one mechanic who returned began working from a truck in the absence of the shop.

The department initially leased buses and slowly began replacing its fleet with funding from FEMA and other agencies. The city of Central, La., which is near Baton Rouge, held a fundraiser that paid for three new school buses for St. Bernard Parish.

One of the major difficulties in providing school bus service since the storm has been navigating the streets. In the beginning, there were no streetlights. There were very few street signs — a problem that persists today. And the roads were filled with debris, which included wrecked cars and boats and even houses that had been swept from their foundations.

Gonzales says that before drivers began making their runs, she went out to look for house numbers and check streets to make sure that the buses could get through. She would stay at the transportation office in the evening until all of the drivers had called to say that they had completed their runs safely.

“Anything could have happened,” Gonzales says. “You didn’t know who was in the parish, and it was so dark and desolate.”

While much progress has been made in the past two years, Gonzales says that still, “Every day is a struggle.” The department is now up to 35 drivers — it had about 54 drivers plus subs before Katrina — but it has no subs now. Gonzales says that she and her secretary often have to cover runs.

The department continues to operate out of its temporary accommodations, but the parish has begun drawing plans for a new transportation and maintenance facility. It will be built in an area where the floodwater was much lower — about 4 feet.

The school system’s storm plan now calls for drivers from safer parishes to be sent in to drive St. Bernard’s buses back home with them. When Hurricane Dean was potentially headed their way, the transportation department had its drivers fuel up their buses, which are normally parked at the drivers’ houses and elsewhere in the parish, and bring them to headquarters. Shuttles were provided to take the drivers home.

“We were ready to have the buses all taken out,” Gonzales says. “We don’t want to ever lose the fleet again.”

Plaquemines Parish juts from the southeastern tip of Louisiana into the Gulf of Mexico. The peninsula encloses the last leg of the Mississippi River before it flows into the sea.

Katrina devastated the largely rural parish with severe winds and flooding. Among the losses were six of the nine schools in the Plaquemines Parish School Board. About a third of the parish’s 100 school buses were destroyed, as was a bus maintenance and fueling facility.

“We lost every big piece of equipment that you could think of,” says Meg Paolini, transportation coordinator for the school system.

Some of the parish’s school buses were hotwired and commandeered by evacuees. The transportation department contacted police and ran notices on television in hopes of recovering the buses. Eventually, they were all found in various places and conditions. One bus was about 90 miles away in Baton Rouge. One was about 70 miles away in Houma. In one case, refugees had been living inside the bus and had even barbecued in it.

Recovering from the devastation has been a trying process, but the parish has come a long way since Katrina. The transportation department has replaced about 25 of the 33 buses that were lost, and four more are on order. Paolini says that her assistant superintendent has been securing grants to purchase the new buses.

The department isn’t planning to rebuild the maintenance facility that was destroyed, but it is looking into acquiring a temporary unit in which technicians could take care of light maintenance jobs. The unit, which Paolini says looks like a cargo container, could be closed up and towed if needed.

Before Katrina, there were about 5,000 students in the system; now there are about 3,500. Paolini says that her department transports the majority of the students because the schools and homes are spread far apart.

The parish also lost many school bus drivers who, homes having been destroyed, moved to other parts of the state. Some returned, but Paolini says that she has needed to recruit more drivers. Radio and television ads, as well as letters sent home with students, have helped attract candidates. The department is now short about nine drivers.

A key challenge for the department is transporting students who were displaced from the southern end of the parish to the northern end, where many people are still living in FEMA trailers.

“We’re still transporting students from Belle Chasse [at the northern end] to lower areas, like Port Sulphur,” Paolini says. “They want to go to the schools they went to before.”

The heart of New Orleans was deluged after Katrina, mostly due to the failure of floodwalls and levees. Before the hurricane hit, Mayor Ray Nagin had called for a mandatory evacuation of the city. Yet tens of thousands of residents didn’t have the means or the will to leave. Many were left trapped in their homes. Many took shelter at the “refuge of last resort,” the Louisiana Superdome. Looting and violence grew rampant throughout the city.

More than 100 of the city’s schools were damaged or destroyed by the storm. At Orleans Parish’s Almonaster Bus Barn, hundreds of school buses languished in floodwater.

Following Katrina, Laidlaw Education Services was contracted to transport the city’s students. This school year, the company expects to serve between 16,000 and 18,000 students on about 340 routes in the area.

The schools are run by various authorities. Many are under the jurisdiction of the Recovery School District, which was created by the state in 2003 to take over failing schools. Some are still under the Orleans Parish district. Others are independent charter schools.

Tony Vidrine, general manager of Laidlaw’s eastern region, says that the initial difficulties in providing bus service were in infrastructure deficiencies. Roads, phone service, electricity and sewer systems were unreliable. Laidlaw was also faced with shortages of potential employees and supply vendors.

Today, most of those needs have been met, but challenges remain. “Currently, the largest challenge is trying to determine the volume and timing of the population returning,” Vidrine says. “The district has been very proactive in securing demographic studies so proper planning can be accomplished.”

Jefferson Parish stretches from the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina left much of the heavily populated northern end of the parish in an uninhabitable state. Toxic floodwaters, downed trees and electrical lines, gas leaks and low water pressure plagued the region.

Most of Jefferson Parish’s schools were reopened in October 2005, more than a month after Katrina. But many of the school bus owner/operators who had been transporting the parish’s students didn’t return after the storm. The shortage resulted in a contract with First Student.

Ed Franklin, contract manager for First Student in Jefferson Parish, says the company now operates 65 buses in the parish, while more than 300 buses are still run by owner/operators.

Beyond recruiting new drivers, Franklin says that parking has presented a key challenge. The operation does have a relatively small lot at its office, but it relies heavily on park-out arrangements with schools.

“It’s a matter of how many the schools can take, and whether the principals will allow it,” Franklin says. “Not everyone wants school buses on their property.”

St. Charles
St. Charles Parish lies along the southwestern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. While it was certainly hit by Katrina, the eye of the hurricane just missed it. Since its school bus fleet was left intact for the most part, St. Charles Parish Public Schools was able to play a major role in evacuation efforts in neighboring parishes.

Transportation Operations Coordinator Gary Martin says that his staff worked long hours to shuttle residents to shelters throughout the state. They also transported food to evacuees and other rescue workers. Martin himself was part of a mission to rescue about 40 people who were stranded and in danger at a convention center (for Martin’s full account of the story, see pg. 12 of the November 2005 issue).

The St. Charles transportation department spent considerable time and money for its part in the Katrina evacuation efforts. But it was only recently reimbursed by FEMA. One of the stumbling blocks in the process was that the department hadn’t realized how much documentation would be required.

“Now we know that if you evacuate to shelter, you need to keep a logbook — what you did with the bus, where you took the residents,” Martin says. “And now we know what FEMA will pay for and what they won’t.”

The parish’s fleet of about 140 school buses had sustained only moderate damage during the storm. Helping to keep them from further harm was a technique that Martin says his department learned from Florida pupil transporters: circling the buses with their stop arms facing inward (to keep the wind from ripping them off), with the older buses on the outside.

Drivers are usually allowed to take their buses home, but during the storm, the department brought the buses to its main lots, positioning some on each side of the Mississippi River in case a key bridge went out of commission.

After Katrina, the St. Charles school system had a few thousand extra students enrolled before it was set to reopen, because other school systems in the area were still closed. Martin says that St. Charles took steps to accommodate the increase, recruiting more teachers and leasing extra buses. At the last minute, the Jefferson Parish school system opened and took back most of its students. Still, about 600 extra students stayed at St. Charles through the school year, so Martin says the extra buses came in handy.

Some of St. Charles’ bus drivers were forced out of the area by Katrina. But many of those who left came back, and Martin says that the district helped to secure FEMA housing for drivers and other employees.

Two years past Katrina, Martin says the emotional toll lingers, and the disaster will not soon be forgotten.

“Every time you watch the news, it’s Katrina this, Katrina that, road home to recovery, this lawsuit is going on,” Martin says.

Still, notions of unity and goodwill pervade. “There’s the ringing of the anniversary bells, which is really big down here,” Martin says. “The bells are sold by the fire departments to go toward Katrina relief.”

Related Topics: emergency planning, First Student Inc., weather

Thomas McMahon Executive Editor
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