CARPINTERIA, Calif. — School bus drivers here answered the call to help teachers and other critical personnel get to and from work last week as part of a major highway was shut down due to deadly mudslides.
Four bus drivers and a transportation supervisor from Carpinteria Unified School District (USD) coordinated with the Office of Emergency Services in Santa Barbara and two local public transportation agencies to create two convoys to bring nearly 500 staff members to and from their workplaces down a wet, muddied swath of Highway 101.
Teachers and other district staff members, city employees, water district employees, and hospital staff were transported in the convoys, said Michael Littlejohn the transportation and warehouse supervisor for Carpinteria USD.
Each day, the school bus drivers met at 4:30 a.m. to complete pre-checks and discuss the plan for the day. They then drove to the meeting location, Carpinteria High School, at 5 a.m. Half an hour later, they proceeded to one of the closure points and met a California Highway Patrol (CHP) escort before heading north into Montecito and Santa Barbara, where the convoy of public transit buses from Ventura met them.
“It was kind of a surreal scene, driving through and seeing mud piled up on the sides [of the highway], especially around some of the houses,” Littlejohn said. “There was a red Little Tikes car that was just sitting out there in the mud by itself, splattered. It was a jolting scene.”
After dropping off personnel in Santa Barbara, the school buses picked up some of the district’s teachers and brought them into Carpinteria.
In the afternoon, employees gathered in Carpinteria, and at 4:30, the buses and the CHP escort headed out again. At 6 p.m., the school buses joined the public transit bus convoy and headed south to Carpinteria and Ventura, respectively.
One challenge to committing to the project meant that Carpinteria USD was unable to provide home-to-school service for general-education students during that time. However, it did maintain its special-needs transportation service.
“We have one bus that does special needs here in town, and we kept that going,” Littlejohn said.
In fact, the district actually expanded its special-needs run to accommodate the special-needs students who typically ride on the general-education buses, he noted.
Although Littlejohn said he and his employees are tired, they feel proud for having helped keep critical services going in the area in the wake of the mudslides, and for the successful teamwork they experienced with the emergency services and public transportation agencies.
“The staff has put in 15-hour days, [but] we like being part of the solution,” Littlejohn said. “As far as the agencies working together, that has gone absolutely fantastic. Lot of communication and flexibility.”
The community has been supportive and was understanding about the lack of general transportation for students, he added.
“They are proud of us, too.”
Still, Littlejohn is looking forward to getting back to a normal schedule, he said.
The highway reopened in Santa Barbara County on Sunday. It had been closed following the Jan. 9 mudslide that killed 21 people, the Los Angeles Times reported.