Companies find hurricane duty unpredictable but rewarding

Hundreds of motorcoaches headed to the coast to help with mandatory coastal evacuations

by Kim Schneider 

Among the many challenges that must be dealt with when a hurricane is barreling toward the country’s Atlantic coast, you might not guess that one would be finding a motorcoach not otherwise committed in the South during college football season.

But that was just one of many issues being juggled by logistics specialists like Kevin O’Connor when a mandatory evacuation was issued for as many as 1 million people in mid-September, yet forecasters weren’t sure where frighteningly large Hurricane Florence might hit.

O’Connor’s Transportation Management Systems sent some 300 buses—and initially staged several others, later cancelled—to communities under evacuation orders or later in the midst of hurricane-related flooding. At the same time, Charles Coleman, owner of See & See friendly Tours of Holly Hill, S.C., found himself working with FEMA as a volunteer dispatcher. His driver—more accustomed to driving school kids to field trips around the country—was helping with the evacuation of areas around Myrtle Beach.

“It’s long hours. It can get to be stressful, let me put it that way, but when there’s a need, there’s a need,” Coleman said. “If you’re on a rooftop, you don’t need to hear ‘I can’t get to you until next week.’ We’ve got to have transportation available twenty-four hours of the day.”

As Florence barreled toward New Bern, N.C.—the first community in the path of the storm and the one that faced the most initial devastation—Tom Crouch, president of Young Transportation and Tours, was able to send a dozen buses to help. One evacuated a nursing home, another moved soldiers from one military base to another, and yet another went to the rescue of college dorm residents of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, moving them inland to temporary rooms at UNC-Asheville. Most times, motorcoaches are brought in for people with no other means of transportation and other times, he said, to get the job done quickly.

The Florence evacuation was relatively uneventful, he noted, the biggest buzz surrounding his efforts about the fact he sent the wrapped orange team buses of the Clemson Tigers, which fortuitously didn’t have a mid-week game. ESPN called, he said, wanting to do a story on football players helping with evacuation, only it was the bus drivers who were the stars.

Taking care of drivers is something that companies working on evacuations take seriously, notes Patricia Burton of Leisure Time Charters and Tours of Emerson, Ga. She sent buses to a staging area in South Carolina, but they were released when forecasters predicted the storm would hit farther north. She wasn’t able to send more later, because the buses were committed to standing contracts—a typical situation and another preparation challenge.

While companies need to be able to spare and juggle buses, drivers—sent off by the company with at least two days’ worth of food, towels and a wash basin—need empathy since they’re dealing with people who may lose everything in the storm, and patience. “It’s a hurry up and wait kind of game.”

Transportation Management Systems (TMS) contracts with several states to provide disaster relief and in turn subcontracts to motorcoach companies—some with 20-plus coaches to offer, others with only one. For this storm, they gathered 300 coaches for communities under evacuation orders or in the midst of flooding, sending the buses first to a staging area, outfitting drivers with a special phone and GPS system, and then dispatching them to places of highest need.

While the work is unpredictable, driver pay is good for such emergency work, and it enables motorcoach companies to put buses otherwise sitting in the garage to work. There’s another benefit, says Coleman, who undertook special rescue training. He ended up helping with so-called “lily pad” operations that have search and rescue teams looking for flood survivors in specially outfitted vehicles, then bringing them to a motorcoach waiting on a patch of dry ground for transportation to safety.

“Emergency evacuations are interesting,” he said. “But the greatest joy of all is knowing you helped somebody.”


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