Hurricane Sandy made landfall near Atlantic City, N.J., on Oct. 29. As shown in the map using LiDAR satellite data, most of New York City’s (NYC) coastal areas experienced storm surge, significantly impacting almost all city services. Yellow school bus service was no exception. (Note: In the map legend, the blue areas indicate coastal areas inundated. The yellow dots indicate garages in the inundation area.)
NYC school bus service is provided by private vendors but is managed by the Department of Education’s Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT). As part of the city’s storm preparation, OPT sent management and staff to the Office of Emergency Management to assist in mobilizing hundreds of these buses to evacuate citizens in low-lying areas to shelters. Then the city, and the bus fleets, waited for the storm to pass.
When the waters receded, OPT began damage assessment. Of immediate concern was damage to OPT’s facility, which sustained serious flooding.
According to OPT Executive Director Alexandra Robinson, more than 7 million gallons of water were pumped from the bottom of the Department of Education’s OPT building.
This extensive flooding and associated electrical problems forced OPT to relocate its more than 200 employees to other city facilities in the weeks following the storm. Access to critical network systems and equipment used for routing, geographic information systems (GIS) and the customer service call center had to be quickly reassembled and performed remotely.
Bus yards inundated
At the same time, OPT had to assess damage to bus vendor assets.
Unfortunately, nearly one-third of the school bus yards used by NYC’s private bus contractors were located in the inundation area. Vendors that hadn’t moved their fleets to higher ground suffered significant losses.
According to Robinson, “one of NYC’s largest contractors lost more than 250 buses, but many companies, big and small, sustained vehicle damage in the hundreds. Many vendors also suffered extensive damage to their offices, fuel tanks and critical operational systems.”
Two areas of Brooklyn with a large number of bus yards — Red Hook and Coney Island — experienced severe storm surge and long-term power outages.
In Red Hook, 10 yards (used by 17 different vendors) were flooded. In Coney Island, nine yards (used by 13 different vendors) were also swamped. Further complicating recovery in Coney Island were thick layers of beach sand deposited across the yards by the receding surge waters.
Surge in service demand
OPT also had to contend with issues beyond fleet and yard damage. Although schools reopened on Nov. 3, more than 77 school buildings remained closed due to flood damage, electrical failure or accessibility issues.
Students from these schools who had previously used the now-crippled public transit system to get to school suddenly required yellow school bus service for the first time. With many companies struggling just to provide service to their previously contracted routes, approximately 21,000 additional students from closed schools now required service to alternate sites.
Though the bus vendors rallied their resources to service much of this increased demand, OPT also utilized private coach services in some areas.
Although many bus yards have underground fuel storage tanks, most in the inundation areas were destroyed by salt water. For these companies, this meant that even yards able to regain electrical power and clear away debris were still unable to fuel their fleets.
To deal with the citywide fuel shortage, NYC used a decommissioned airport (Floyd Bennett Field), managed by the National Guard, as an emergency fueling station for critical service vehicles, including school buses.
In a remarkably short time, NYC’s yellow school bus service was up and running.
“We’re proud of the work done by OPT in response to Hurricane Sandy,” said Eric Goldstein, chief executive of the Department of Education’s Office of School Support Services, which oversees OPT. “Both staff and management worked diligently to re-route closed schools, find alternate assets to replace damaged and destroyed fleets, and even served as volunteers at shelters, all while assisting parents and school administrators in adjusting to a radically altered school bus environment.”
Kevin Jenkins is a GIS analyst for the New York City Department of Education, Office of Pupil Transportation.