Hundreds of buses were in the Gulf Coast this week to evacuate thousands as Hurricane Laura bore down.
The situation illustrates how buses and drivers play a critical role in hurricane evacuations. The federal government depends on the industry to take people from hospitals, retirement centers and nursing homes, and relocate them to safe areas, where there are supplies stocked for them.
Among those helping out were Vandalia Bus Lines, Dixieland Tours, Lewis Coaches, Windstar Lines, Galveston Limousine, Lone Star Coaches, Empire Coach Line, Imperial Bus Company, Champion Coaches, Little Rock Tours, Kelton Tours, Louisiana Motor Coach, Premier Transporation Service and Good Time Tours.
Most were dispatched by Transportation Management Services, which handles the contracts for FEMA and other governmental agencies.
Industry did ‘great job’
More than 4,000 people were moved to safety by motorcoaches this week, Mike Moulton, TMS Executive Vice President of Business Development shared during the Aug. 27 United Motorcoach Association Town Hall, giving an update of evacuation efforts.
“We were activated early on Saturday with a hundred buses . . . and, by Monday evening at 10 o’clock, Texas had ordered a total of 400 buses and Louisiana had ordered 65. We are working with about 85 different vendors,” Moulton said.
“All the insurance vendors out there scrambled to make sure the insurance certificates were updated and buses were back on,” he said. “The whole industry did a great job.”
Hurricane Laura’s ferocious winds pummeled portions of Louisiana early Thursday, leaving at least six people dead. But it could have been worse. If it had hit closer to New Orleans, the evacuees could have numbered greater than 45,000, Moulton said.
First job in months
The motorcoach industry has been stalled since March due to COVID-19. For many, the trip to south Texas marked their first time back on the road.
Earlier in the week, Louisiana Motor Coach Inc. dispatched 15 buses, most of which were equipped with wheelchair lifts. The first wave of buses was deployed to Lafayette, Louisiana, and then four more to San Antonio, Texas — about an eight-hour drive.
The company, which does fixed-run service with Flixbus and counts American Cruise Lines among its biggest clients, has about a dozen coaches with wheelchair lifts.
Director of Operations Ryan Sanders appreciated having his buses back on the road, fulfilling a critical mission to get Americans out of harm’s way.
It’s the scenario he and others in the industry have described to political leaders in an effort to get financial assistance.
“I’ve been meeting with a lot of my congressional delegation, as well as my U.S. senators, and, within the past couple of weeks, we’ve even formed a coalition in the state of companies and limo operators, saying, ‘Hey we need help and we need it now,’” Sanders said. “We formed the Louisiana bus and limo coalition with 15 companies a few weeks ago.”
Sanders has three contracts for hurricane work. He put his drivers on alert earlier in the week, and by Monday he had sent them out.
In need of support
He praised Dixieland Tours owner Lori Guyton, who recently organized a meeting with the Director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. During the meeting, motorcoach operators explained how the lack of financial support could make it difficult for the industry to respond during the tropical storm season. During Hurricane Katrina, more than 1,200 buses were sent to rescue stranded people, Sanders said.
Hurricane Laura marked the largest U.S. evacuation of the pandemic, more than a half-million people were ordered to flee from an area of the Gulf Coast along the Texas-Louisiana state line. Many boarded buses to inland cities to wait out the hurricane.
“I’m glad to be driving again,” said Ron Baker, who was furloughed by Roadrunner Charters based near Austin in March after five years with the company. Fortunately, he was hired three weeks ago by the Dallas-based Premier Transportation Service.
While he didn’t pick up any passengers, he spent Tuesday evening through Wednesday in a parking lot in Beaumont waiting to be dispatched and then spent another day in Houston before being sent back to Beaumont. It was a similar scenario to his work during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when he was also on standby.
Complicated by COVID-19
Adding to the challenge of moving people quickly is COVID-19. Buses were stocked with PPE and disinfectant, and they were supposed to carry fewer passengers to observe social distancing.
Hurricane Laura hit the U.S. coast just days before the Aug. 29 anniversary of Katrina, which breached the levees in New Orleans, flattened much of the Mississippi coast and killed as many as 1,800 people in 2005.
Lewis Coaches marked its first hurricane evacuation this week. The New Orleans company wanted to be part of the effort to repay those who helped during Katrina, said Braden Lewis, Director of Operations for the family-owned business.
“Our coaches evacuated people from Beaumont, Texas, and took them to Mesquite,” said Lewis. “Drivers are happy to be working again, even at this sad time, and we’re happy to have coaches on the road.”