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October 01, 2005  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

In the eye of the hurricane


The mad rush out of Katrina-devastated New Orleans in early September was facilitated by hundreds of school buses and motorcoaches from all over the country. (For an account of one school district’s evacuation efforts, click here.)

Some of the buses were deployed directly into New Orleans, while others provided transportation to airlifted evacuees, running them from their airfields to shelters and other temporary residences.

Houston Independent School District (HISD) sent 142 of its buses directly to the area to help with evacuation and relief efforts in the days following the hurricane.

With two drivers on each bus and the support of HISD police cars and repair trucks, the group left the night of Saturday, Sept. 3, and arrived early the next morning at a National Guard staging area outside of New Orleans.

The buses were sent out in groups to different areas to transport evacuees, troops and supplies. Scores of people were rescued, including many who were in wheelchairs and were trapped by the high water. After working all day, the Houston team left for home, again driving through the night.

Phillip Smith, assistant general manager for transportation services, was with a group that was dispatched to Algiers Point, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans’ French Quarter.

“It was quite a sight,” Smith said. “We saw a lot of buildings downtown and houses on the west bank that were devastated.” Smith said the trip was a rewarding experience and a remarkable showing for the HISD school bus operation.

“We drove about 150,000 total vehicle miles getting there and back,” Smith said. “Other than two flat tires, we had no mechanical problems and no accidents. We were quite proud of the drivers and also the condition of the fleet to be able to do that on short notice.”

Although not involved in the actual evacuation of New Orleans, one school district in San Antonio helped move evacuees from a local airfield to processing centers and finally to shelters.

Northeast Independent School District provided 10 school buses to transport evacuees on Sept. 3 and 4. “It was a joint effort with the city and the local transit agency,” said Nolan Anderson, executive director of transportation.

“We used our own drivers and provided the fuel. The 10 drivers volunteered for the assignment, but we did pay them through a federal reimbursement.”

In Arkansas, Fort Smith Public School District in Fort Chaffee helped to move evacuees from local Air Guard base to a processing center over the Sept. 3-4 weekend. “We used 20 buses to shuttle evacuees from the air base throughout the weekend,” said Transportation Director Jeff Tomlin. The buses made several 15-mile round trips to shuttle the 4,500 evacuees who arrived by air over the weekend.

“We were moving bodies as fast as we could,” Tomlin said. In addition to their behind-the-wheel duties, Tomlin’s drivers also had to physically assist some of the evacuees. “They were in pretty bad shape,” he said. “Some of them couldn’t walk and we also handled luggage and carried babies. We did double duty.”

On Labor Day, Tomlin and five other staff members spent the day cleaning the buses, which, because of the distressed state of the evacuees, needed thorough cleaning and disinfection. “All the buses were ready to go Tuesday morning,” Tomlin said.

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