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October 01, 2007  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Special Report: 2 Years After Katrina

New Orleans’ school bus systems have largely recovered but continue to deal with the effects of the devastating 2005 storm. As another hurricane loomed, pupil transportation officials turned their focus back to evacuation plans.

by Thomas McMahon, Managing Editor

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“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.”

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