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Published in Print: October 5, 2005, as School Buses Answer Calls for Help in Crises

School Buses Answer Calls for Help in Crises

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Houston school officials finally got the word from the Louisiana governor’s office at dusk on a humid Saturday evening: Start the buses. We need you.

Five days after Hurricane Katrina had laid waste to New Orleans, a convoy of 142 air-conditioned school buses from the 209,000-student Texas district rumbled to life. Loaded with food and bottled water, staffed by 350 school employees, and accompanied by bus-repair trucks and a phalanx of school police cars, the yellow buses traveled all night to reach the Crescent City, some 350 miles away.

Over the next 36 hours, the school buses and drivers had the vital responsibility of moving New Orleans residents to shelters, taking hospital patients to the airport for further evacuation, and transporting U.S. Coast Guard and Army personnel throughout the city and beyond.

The work of Houston’s school buses, drivers and other employees in the response to Hurricane Katrina—and now, Hurricane Rita—illustrates just how important a role both can play in mass evacuations from natural disasters, public-safety and transportation experts say. But exactly how officials plan to use school buses in emergencies—and how effectively those plans are followed—can vary greatly among states and even within states, those experts say.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in late August, scores of school buses in metropolitan New Orleans lay dormant, their rooftops just visible above the rising floodwaters, noted Michael J. Martin, the executive director of the National Association of Pupil Transportation, a membership organization based in Albany, N.Y.

By contrast, long lines of school buses filled with people from Houston, Galveston, and other Texas cities drove north, away from the danger zone, before Hurricane Rita made landfall in that area on Sept. 24. Those two examples, Mr. Martin said, offer “stark contrasts in the way school buses are integrated in community emergency preparedness.”

Buses Sat Idle

It’s not surprising that emergency-management officials call upon school buses in times of need. Those buses collectively provide the largest mass-transit system in the United States, transporting more than 25 million students twice a day, according to Mr. Martin.

As in most other states, Louisiana’s public school districts usually work with county emergency-management offices in mass evacuations. But Katrina was another matter.

On Aug. 31, two days after the hurricane hit, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, ordered that all operational school districts in Louisiana inform the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness of the number of school buses and bus drivers they had.

Almost 700 school buses from Louisiana were used to pluck more than 15,700 residents from flooded neighborhoods in and around New Orleans, according to Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education.

But some transportation experts wonder why school buses weren’t used to move citizens out before Katrina came ashore. They also lament the apparent lack of coordination between state, local, and federal officials in the tumultuous days that followed. And, they are asking, why weren’t more school buses used after the storm struck?

That’s what Mr. Martin wondered upon seeing news photos of submerged New Orleans school buses. “My first thought was, ‘Why aren’t they being used in evacuation?’ ” he said.

One reason is that nobody realized until late on Friday, Aug. 26, that Katrina would hit Louisiana dead-on, Ms. Casper said.

“By that time, it’s the weekend, and schools are out,” she said.

State and emergency officials rushed to find school buses and drivers as water filled New Orleans. When asked about the paucity of drivers, Gov. Blanco said to reporters that many of the school bus drivers “got afraid to drive” because of reports of looting and violence in New Orleans, beginning around Aug. 30.

The challenge of securing enough bus drivers was something that Irene Toner took to heart. She’s the director of the emergency-management division for Monroe County, Fla., the southernmost county in the continental United States.

In the days before Hurricane Rita sideswiped Florida, Ms. Toner asked the state to provide more school bus drivers in case Rita forced the county’s 84,000 residents to flee. “We don’t have enough drivers,” she said. “The awareness of that problem heightened after Katrina.”

About 10 fire and rescue personnel from elsewhere in Florida stepped up. They were integral to the mass evacuation that emptied the county of more than half its residents, Ms. Toner said.

Making it Work

On Friday, Aug. 26, three days before Katrina smashed Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, 120 buses driven by school district drivers from around the state stood ready to evacuate people.

Many residents didn’t board the school buses before Katrina hit, though, opting either to stay put or to flee using their own vehicles, said Robert O. Laird, the director of the Mississippi Department of Education’s school safety division.

But after the storm came ashore, the state education department worked closely with the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and local districts to ferry hospital patients, the elderly, and other evacuees to shelters as far away as 120 miles from the Gulf Coast. They deployed 200 to 300 buses driven by district-employed bus drivers.

“In Mississippi, everything went as planned,” said Mr. Laird, noting that Mississippi is one of the few states that have centralized crisis-response teams in their education departments.

South Carolina, meanwhile, is one of the few states, if not the only one, in which the state actually owns the buses used by public school districts statewide. As a result, state officials can deploy those vehicles almost immediately, said Donald N. Tudor, the director of pupil transportation for the South Carolina Department of Education.

Mr. Tudor has a list of the location of each bus and its seating capacity, and another of district bus drivers who can respond quickly. If they are unavailable, he said, he can call on the National Guard to provide drivers.

Around the country, not all school buses are owned by districts or states. About one-fourth of school buses are owned and operated by private vendors, such as Laidlaw International Inc., of Naperville, Ill. Such companies often have evacuation agreements with their local emergency-management offices, Mr. Martin of the pupil-transportation association said.

‘In a War Zone’

On the weekend after Katrina caused widespread flooding in New Orleans, Phillip Smith looked out over quiet, blacked-out streets in the city. It had been a long day and night for the Houston public schools’ transportation manager.

He, along with district bus drivers, mechanics, other transportation personnel and police, had been working nonstop for 36 hours to evacuate and feed hundreds of New Orleans residents and transport soldiers.

“We were really in a war zone,” Mr. Smith said, recalling the drone of helicopters overhead.

At 11 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 4, the Houston school buses turned west, back to Houston. They arrived at 10 a.m. on Labor Day. Finally, the school employees could leave the buses for some much-needed rest. But in less than 24 hours, they’d be back on board to carry thousands of students to their first day of school.

Vol. 25, Issue 06, Pages 1,14

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