Hundreds of motorcoaches and drivers from across the eastern United States assisted in evacuating thousands of people from areas stricken by the high winds and flooding of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Smaller numbers of vehicles remain on duty, returning displaced residents to homes and delivering emergency responders to areas in need of cleanup and utility repairs.
“Transportation is always a key consideration in these emergency scenarios. Getting people out of harm’s way is a critical component,” said Kevin O’Connor, president of Transportation Management Services (TMS) of Sandy Spring, Md., which had the logistics contract to conduct evacuations.
“The people we are evacuating typically have no other way to get out. It may be older folks or people who simply don’t have access to a vehicle or other transit.”
Transportation assistance may be needed long after winds have subsided and floors have drained.
“On the back end the buses form a significant portion of recovery efforts,” O’Connor said.
The state of Texas contracted for 650 buses from TMS, he said. Eighty-nine carriers based in 11 states as far away as Pennsylvania provided those vehicles. Many of those motorcoaches remained in service for days as emergency management officials faced the flooding resulting from Harvey’s unprecedented rainfall.
South Carolina contracted with TMS for 500 motorcoaches when it appeared that Hurricane Irma would wreak havoc on its coastal areas. When Irma arrived on Sept. 11, however, it had weakened considerably and the motorcoach fleet was released almost immediately.
Irma wrought much greater devastation over the entire Florida peninsula after landing over the Florida Keys on Sept. 10 and traveling north. The Florida government does not arrange for a statewide evacuation fleet but businesses and institutions hired several buses, said Matt Brown, chairman of the Florida Motorcoach Association and general manager of Astro Travel and Tours in Tallahassee.
Hurricane Harvey crossed the Gulf of Mexico and made its first landfall at Texas on August 26 with winds of up to 130 miles per hour. It became the wettest hurricane in U.S. records, dropping 40 to 50 inches of rain over four days. Harvey bounced back over the gulf twice before making its third landfall on Louisiana on August 29.
The hurricane caused at least 70 deaths in the U.S. and flooded hundreds of thousands of homes. On Sept. 13 the Texas Division of Emergency Management reported that 122,331 people and 5,249 pets had been evacuated or rescued since the first landfall.
The state report did not specify the numbers who had been evacuated by the state’s emergency motorcoach fleet.
Tough on drivers
Motorcoaches initially were staged in San Antonio for the Texas emergency efforts, O’Connor said. “Then they created a forward staging area west of Houston in Katy. We brought in tents and generators to set up a dispatch area there.”
Housing, feeding, watering and fueling motorcoach teams was a constant challenge, he said.
“Drivers know they are going into tough circumstances — long hours, going to where we know the weather is bad and places where we don’t have a lot of resources for them. There aren’t extra rooms. Many places that serve food aren’t available,” he said.
“We are asking drivers to be totally inconvenienced for a period of time. For the most part, they take it on the chin. They know it is for the greater good. They know they are getting people out of harm’s way.”
As difficult as it was to line up 650 motorcoaches for Texas, it may have been a bigger challenge to secure 500 for South Carolina, said O’Connor of TMS.
“The fall is a busy time of year for the motorcoach industry. It’s football season and the beginning of school, and sports consume motorcoaches,” he said. “Due to the uncertain track of Irma, nobody knew where it was going. When it appeared that it was going to strike South Carolina, they flipped the switch and asked for a large fleet.
“This was on the heels of Harvey and we still had a lot of buses operating in Texas. A lot of our operators were dealing with their own circumstances so we had to go much wider. We had 91 companies responding with buses coming from as far away as Michigan,” O’Connor said.
The South Carolina emergency fleet was staged at Orangeburg and released nearly as soon as it assembled.
Because of other commitments, a number of motorcoaches had to leave Texas and be replaced during the deployment, O’Connor said. “We ended up engaging 686 buses to fill the 650-bus need.”
TMS also continued to operate a smaller motorcoach fleet in Texas. “We’re getting people from shelters back to their homes and shuttling people involved in the recovery efforts,” O’Connor said.
Giving heroes rides
Brown of Astro Travel in Tallahassee said north Florida we were spared from major Irma damage.
“It looked like it was going to be tough but we never lost power,” he said, adding that he hasn’t heard of any motorcoach carriers in Florida that sustained damage to facilities or equipment.
Brown said the motorcoach industry lends a critical hand to evacuation and response efforts. “When a storm is coming everybody starts scrambling. Hospitals and nursing homes reach out to companies like us. We assisted in the evacuations of some of the Florida State University athletic teams,” he said.
“Now we are doing a bunch of work for Florida Power & Light, moving work crews around. We are their transportation. We are not the heroes but we are giving the heroes the rides they need to get to where they need to go.”
O’Conner said TMS appreciates its partners in the motorcoach industry.
“I always am in awe of how the industry responds. We recognize it is a challenge and we really appreciate the drivers who are willing to take care of people who critically need transportation.”