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 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.