As Hurricane Ida bore down on the Gulf states in late August, hundreds of motorcoaches evacuated thousands in harm’s way. The fleets — including those from United Motorcoach Association operators — are expected to stay for days, and likely weeks, to move people to safety as the region struggles with floodwaters and a blackout.
The motorocoach industry continues to provide this crucial service even as it reels from the devastating financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a nationwide driver shortage.
Cary Martin, owner of Little Rock Coaches in Arkansas, sent six motorcoaches to New Orleans as part of the evacuation efforts. Four were among the fleets dispatched for evacuations by Transportation Management Services (TMS) at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the state of Louisiana. Two are helping to shuttle utility crews after power was knocked out from more than a million homes and businesses.
Martin says his coaches were the first on the ready line to respond when the evacuations began on Aug. 28.
“The TMS coaches have been moving people out of the city into evacuation centers. We helped evacuate a couple of retirement homes prior to Ida making landfall,” Martin told Bus & Motorcoach News, adding that residents have since been taken farther outside of New Orleans to centers in Bastrop, Texas; Alexandria, Louisiana; and Houston.
“We have buses coming in from all over the country,” Lea Smith with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, told NBC affiliate KXAN. FEMA and the transportation department hired 55 buses to evacuate roughly 4,000 people out of devastated communities, according to media reports.
Hurricane Ida slammed the Louisiana Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, making landfall as a Category 4 and one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the U.S. mainland. It is the second-most damaging hurricane to strike Louisiana on record, after the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Rodlly Figari, owner of Connexxions Bus in Orlando, dispatched a total of 10 buses – seven Alexandria and three to New Orleans to assist with evacuations. With flooding expected to result in more evacuations, he’s acquiring additional coaches so he can send them to the area.
“As the main power lines that supply power to New Orleans may take weeks to repair, the need to move people out of the metropolitan area keeps on growing,” Figari told Bus &Motorcoach News. “Many operators have more buses available, the problem is that they have no drivers. In our case, we sent everything we had out to Louisiana, but we had to leave four buses in Orlando as they are dedicated to the Magical Express service (at Walt Disney World). We have acquired two more units and are now preparing to send them to Louisiana in the next few days.”
Little Rock’s Martin praised his drivers for making the effort work in difficult conditions. They have moved some of the region’s most vulnerable populations from danger, such as those housed in assisted living centers.
Martin says his drivers have been involved in “some really emotional situations. These are people that often have mental challenges, physical challenges they’re coming out of retirement centers. They don’t understand what’s happening. Some of them know that they may not have a home to come back to and they don’t want to leave their things. … They don’t understand what’s happening.”
Martin is using his experience as a former TV news anchor to educate the public about the lifesaving role motorcoaches perform during natural disasters in moving large groups of people quickly to safety.
In particular, he spotlighted the role of drivers. He explained that his crews will likely be in Louisiana for several days and will be taking shelter in their motorcoaches. They have brought enough supplies to live on the coaches for a week because there is no access to electricity and hotels are filled with evacuees. They are sleeping on cots, hammocks or air mattresses while they wait for more orders to go into other places to facilitate evacuations.
“We have drivers that love being a part of this effort, and they are troopers…They go down with their own supplies,” Martin said during an interview with Arkansas station FOX 16, explaining what is involved in evacuation work. “They hunker down. Imagine going through a Category 3 hurricane in your motorcoach and the wind is blowing all around. It’s a crazy situation but they do this and they love being a part of the team.”
That’s the case for driver Robert Hambly, who joined Little Rock Coaches after a career in the military. He was interviewed by two Louisiana news stations about why he takes the demanding natural disaster assignments.
“My drivers are very proud of what they’ve already done and now that storm is moving through, the floodwaters will come and they’re going to be a lot more evacuations,” Martin said.