Despite sitting idle for the past six months, 600 motorcoaches rolled into action to assist with evacuation efforts in Texas and Louisiana as Hurricane Laura approached landfall.
On Aug. 26 and 27, the hurricane reached land in Louisiana near the Texas border. Though the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm by the afternoon of the 27th, Laura still left a significant amount of destruction in its wake.
Lindy Walker of Clarinda has worked in the motorcoach industry for 21 years as a bus driver. For the past seven years, she has worked as a driver for Navigator MotorCoach and Charter Bus Company based in Norfolk, Nebraska. She also spent seven years in Kansas City with Arrow Stage Lines during her career.
“The public really needs to understand we haven’t worked for ... six months. And yet, when we were called to go, we went. Motorcoach companies didn’t say no. Drivers didn’t say no. We went,” Walker said. “When FEMA calls every bus company - even if they’re sold out - will rearrange their schedule and coordinate with other bus companies to get buses to FEMA. That’s just what they do.”
“Each year 600 buses or more are called upon to assist in hurricane response activity in the U.S. It is their responsibility, not to be taken lightly, to move thousands of people out of harm’s way - from nursing homes, hospitals, senior centers and other facilities - and provide transportation for those who have no other means to evacuate,” said Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of American Bus Association, in a press release posted on the organization’s website. “All the official weather reports point to an especially active hurricane season in 2020. However, because of COVID-19, it is increasingly becoming more challenging to obtain buses as the season continues. Many of the motorcoach companies that would normally engage in these evacuation missions are now on the verge of bankruptcy because of the pandemic.”
Walker said Navigator is a smaller company owned by a husband and wife that has 25 coaches in its fleet. Due to the pandemic, Walker said the company, like many in the industry, has had its scheduled trips since March canceled due to the pandemic. That loss in business is having a dramatic impact on the industry.
“A lot of the bus companies have dropped their insurance on their fleet except maybe one or two of their buses. That is one of the cost cutting measures they’ve went to through this. They’re predicting a minimum of 40% of the companies will close their doors by year’s end,” Walker said.
“These companies lost most, if not all, of their regular business this past year, and many were forced to deactivate their authority and idle their equipment. So, when the call comes for help now, this traditional emergency response force relied upon by the federal, state and local governments in these situations, is not ready,” Pantuso said in the release.
Still, Walker said the motorcoach industry sent 600 buses to the Gulf Coast to assist with the evacuation and had another 400 buses on standby. Meanwhile, the drivers of those buses willingly volunteered their services to aid the people in the path of the hurricane.
“Evacuations are not something glorious for the drivers,” Walker said. “Drivers, when they go down there, normally, we don’t have a hotel because there is no place for us to go to a hotel. We have to somewhat bathe in the buses as we can. We take food with us.”
The challenges motorcoach drivers face in assisting with Hurricane Laura evacuation are being further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Walker said passengers are sitting in every other seat to create social distancing on the bus and are being asked to wear masks. However, she said the drivers cannot force the evacuees to wear a mask. As a result, Walker said the drivers are potentially placing themselves in harm’s way to assist others.
“I think we’re unspoken heroes,” Walker said.
Walker knows firsthand what evacuation situations are like because she volunteered to serve as a driver for three weeks during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She also transported first responders to Joplin, Missouri, after a devastating tornado hit the city in 2011 and assisted following the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, in 2013.
Walker said she was one of 200 buses sent Superdome in New Orleans to relocate refugees who were sheltered at the facility during Hurricane Katrina.
“You go to where they direct you and you load your bus. Then they will tell you, ‘I need you to go to this shelter with this group, and if that shelter is full, I need you to go on to this shelter and this shelter.’ You continue to do that until you are empty. Then you check in with whoever’s in charge of your group to see if they want you to go back to this spot for evacuation or do they need you to go to another spot for evacuation. We might be doing that for 18 or 19 hours,” Walker said.
Besides simply transporting people during these challenging times, Walker said bus drivers are also called upon to be a source of hope for the evacuees. The drivers attempt to make the people feel as reassured and safe as possible.
“I think all your human kindness and your caring comes out in an evacuation because you try to put yourself in these people’s situation. They are terrified. They don’t know if their home is going to be there when they get back,” Walker said. “They depend on us and we’re always there.”
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