As Hurricane Ian approached Florida’s Gulf coast in late September, school district transportation departments kicked into gear, transporting students home safely, fueling and securing the buses, and preparing some buses to transport evacuees to local shelters.
One of the hardest hit areas would be Lee County, which encompasses Fort Myers and surrounding communities.
“As buses returned to their compounds the Monday before the storm, instead of returning to their regular spots, they were strategically parked in a very tight-knit formation,” said Robert Spicker, a spokesman for the School District of Lee County.
“They parked in rows of 10 front bumper to rear bumper as close as possible together forming a square,” he continued. “The newest buses were on the inside. The oldest buses were on the outside to serve as a layer of protection. Stop arms were tied down. Doors were zip-tied shut.”
The Category 4 storm didn’t only affect Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Stan McKinzie, the transportation director for Seminole County Public Schools located inland and northeast of Orlando, noted that his school district provides transportation for the county’s emergency management operations. He has representation on the group and is alerted anytime a hurricane or tropical storm is about to hit the region.
“We created temporary bus stops,” said McKinzie. “There were certain roads we could not get to. We created a stop as close as we could to a school so we could have students stand in a safe location.”
McKinzie said if he receives a phone call from a parent concerned that the stop won’t work for their child, he sends another administrator to work with that parent to come up with a safer stop location for the bus driver, parent and student.
“During these times, you don’t need to create more headaches for your community,” he added. “It’s your job to create compassion and to try to do whatever you can to relieve their distress and headaches.
He said school bus drivers are not only heroes to the students and the parents but their entire community.
“One of the things I’m proud of as we go through a storm or hurricane is that we’re the main transportation unit for our county. We don’t take that lightly. I only pick individuals on that unit who show compassion,” McKinzie explained. “Our urgent care students have all kinds of different issues. You have to be able to stand outside and hold that umbrella over them. Your number one goal is to protect your passengers and show them that you truly care about them in the most urgent times,” he said.
After providing transportation for 27,000 students with 435 buses, the turnaround time to gear up for evacuation transportation is about eight hours, said McKinzie.
After the superintendent has made the decision to close down schools, McKinzie said his staff begins protecting the fleet as well as preparing the buses that will be used for emergency management evacuations.
Buses are pulled up as close as possible toward the building and parked side by side. Emergency hatches and stop arms are tied down.Preparations also entail mobilizing the special needs buses that accommodate wheelchairs as his department plans to evacuate up to about 200 families.
Orange County Public Schools (OCPS), which encompasses Orlando, has its own safety and emergency management department that works with all district departments to establish procedures and plans for any emergency or incident.
The district’s incident management team “meets before, during and after an event to discuss how each department would be impacted, what steps each will take to prepare for the storm, and what is needed during and after the storm,” noted Bill Wen, senior director of transportation.
OCPS also works closely with the Orange County Office of Emergency Management to support emergency shelters and provide back up to LYNX, the local transit authority, for mass evacuations to district schools serving as shelters.
“When the decision to close schools is made, we have staff prepare the facilities by removing any loose debris. Drivers top off their fuel tanks when they return after the afternoon runs,” said Wen. “A team directs buses to park closer together to limit wind damage. Drivers make sure all windows and roof hatches are closed tightly,” he continued. “Maintenance staff is out securing the stop arms with zip ties and adding a bungee cord across the passenger doors. Older buses are parked with the doors on the inside around the buses.”
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Meanwhile, the Seminole County school district’s fleet is 40 percent propane and 60 percent diesel, offering fueling flexibility. Once a tropical storm or hurricane is approaching, bus drivers are required to fuel the buses at the end of their shifts.
“At least you know you’re capable of running your route that first day because all of us have already fueled up,” McKinzie commented.
OCPS has seven transportation sites that provide gasoline, diesel and diesel exhaust fluid.
“When all buses and fueling stations are filled, we can provide service for over a week without another fuel delivery,” said Wen. “The district facilities are on higher ground, so flooding is limited.”
Florida school district officials note they don’t run buses once the sustained winds top 35 mph.
“Because of the structure of the buses and the sustained winds, it’s easy for the buses to be pushed into another lane,” McKinzie observed.
Seminole County schools are used as shelters for emergency evacuations – there are five general shelters of which one is pet-friendly, an urgent care shelter and two special needs shelters, one of which is also pet-friendly.
“We’re responsible for transporting all of those individuals – and even their pets – from our county that go to shelters,” McKinzie said, adding the Seminole County school district bus drivers transported more than 137 residents to shelters and back home when it was safe to do so during Hurricane Ian.
In some cases, bus drivers were picking up residents whose homes had experienced severe flooding.
“They can’t get out, but we can get a bus there,” said McKinzie. “If we can’t get in, then emergency operations use the National Guard or police.”
During entire time Ian lashed the state before exiting the east coast of Florida, McKinzie said was on a 24-hour call.
“That means I didn’t go home from Wednesday to Sunday night,” he added.
Seminole County is home to a number of water bodies, which means there’s going to be a lot of flooding.
“Flooding can cause more damage than anything,” said McKinzie. “You have all these families having to go to temporary housing. That’s going to put a toll not only on the community, but it’s going to put a toll on that school district. Now you’re going to have to re-reroute those individuals because you’re going to get a lot of families in need in the district.
“As a transportation department, you are going to see a lot of your revenue and resources strained and stretched to the limit,” Mckinzie continued. “A lot of those families lost their house and they’re having to stay with other family members. You’re going to be responsible for making sure you provide them transportation.”
Lynette Ferraris, area manager, and Gloria Austin, safety manager, worked in pairs as bus drivers during Seminole County evacuations.
After Hurricane Ian hit, they had gone to a subdivision to pick up an 80-year-old woman needing transportation to a shelter. When they arrived to her house, the water was so deep it was starting to quickly rise up the bus steps.
“By the time it went up to the second step the bus was trying to stall out,” said Austin. “I put the bus into reverse and got away from the deepest part as quick as I could.”
Observing that, the woman told the drivers to leave her and the dogs.
“There was no way I was leaving her,” says Austin. “The house was filling up with water. I knew this lady and these dogs were in big trouble.”
Austin, Ferraris and others approached the house to help the woman and retrieve the dogs one by one, putting them on the bus. They made several trips carrying some of her belongings.
“We got Ms. Joyce’s walker. We got her to the bus,” recalled Austin. “The water was so cold. Lynette warmed her up, dried the dogs off with towels, and made her a sandwich. She was so grateful and happy that we cared so much about her.”
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Spicker noted when the first Lee County school district staff members returned to the compounds after Hurricane Ian’s landfall, they discovered two broken windshields and several broken passenger windows.
Several buses lost stop arms, strobe lights and roof air hatches, but none sustained any major damage. Workers were able to replace the damaged parts with spare parts on site. An onsite vendor replaced the broken windows.
The fleet was ready for mobilization when schools opened.
“We are extremely grateful to the state and every school district in Florida for their offer of support,” said Spicker. “They all told us they would send over any parts we needed from their inventory so that our buses could be repaired. We are just as thankful the amount of damage did not require us to ask for outside help.”
After Hurricane Ian made landfall, Lee County school district buses supported the recovery effort, transporting power restoration crews from their hotels to their worksites. Buses transported those without cars and those having to stay in shelters to other shelters in a consolidation effort.
One of the transportation compounds was used as a FEMA search and rescue team staging area.
The transportation staff was invited to return to the office for reunification meetings with co-workers. Drivers were asked to take their bus and other buses out to run their route or other routes to test the fleet and road conditions.
When it is safe to go out after the storm passes, OCPS area managers visit their service areas to report any damages, flooding, and debris. The information is reported to the district’s Emergency Coordination Center so that it can be reported to the County Emergency Operations Center for action.
Managers check on their employees to make sure they are safe. A predetermined list of drivers is called in to return the buses to their assigned parking locations.
Spicker said some drivers had suffered personal losses as a result of Hurricane Ian and the district was working with them to support their needs.
Roger Lloyd, executive director for transportation and logistical services, was dealing with the flooding of his home and cars while also still managing his department, added Spicker.
McKinzie relayed that about seven bus drivers out of 600 employees lost their own homes from flooding. “We started raising funds to take care of our own,” he shared.
McKinzie said the storm was unique because the wind blew sideways, creating more flooding and property damage.
He added he had only been in his position for three months after being promoted from assistant director before Hurricane Ian hit. While he says it had been the worst he’s ever experienced, he found the evacuation to be the most organized.
“We’ve done a lot of evacuations,” he added. “It came natural for us to do it because I’ve had a staff that’s been in place for more than 20 years that’s been doing it with me as well.”
McKenzie said his message to other transportation directors is “never take anything for granted and never think that it’s not going to come your way. You can do anything as long as you’re prepared.”
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