ANNISTON, Ala. – News reports during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma raved about the brave first responders and volunteers who rushed to Texas and Florida to help evacuate residents and deliver food and water.
But they rarely mentioned bus drivers, who dodged flooded highways, survived on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and slept on makeshift beds in their vehicles’ luggage bays to transport people out of harm’s way.
“You pack like you are going to be camping. That is how we survive and stay as long as we are needed,” said Phyllis Kinnison, who drove motorcoaches in response teams for both hurricanes.
One night last month she spoke from a motel room as she handled transportation for emergency responders working out of the Center for Domestic Preparedness, a branch of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in Anniston.
While assisting evacuation teams in Texas and Louisiana following Hurricane Harvey, she spent nights in her motorcoach.
“I have been on the road for a month now,” said Kennison, who drives for Empire Coach Line in Orlando, Fla. “When we were heading into San Antonio through the Houston area we ran into a lot of rain — enough to make the interstate quite dangerous.
“We saw a lot of flooding below the interstates — there were cars floating in the water. They usually sent us with a police escort to get us around the flooded areas,” she said. “That storm I spent nine nights on my motorcoach. It is part of what we do.”
Hundreds of motorcoaches and drivers from across the United States assisted in evacuating thousands of people from areas stricken by the high winds and flooding caused by Harvey and Irma.
Smaller numbers of vehicles remained on duty for weeks, returning displaced residents to homes and delivering emergency responders to areas in need of cleanup and utility repairs.
It wasn’t an easy job.
“Some of our drivers made beds in their luggage bays,” said Randal Steelman. His companies, Lone Star Coaches of Grand Prairie, Texas, and Tri-City Charter of Bossier City, La., dispatched 16 coaches to assist Harvey evacuations.
“We made hurricane kits for our drivers with things like air mattresses and ice chests, and gave them lists of things to bring,” Steelman said. “When they are out, they never know if they are going to have a chance to get into a motel or be stuck on their bus. “The first nights, when there were hundreds of buses lined up, it was probably easier for them to stay where they were than try to find somewhere to go.”
Advanced features enhance the serviceability of motorcoaches as half-million-dollar campers.
“Some of the buses have electricity so we have our own coffee pots,” said Kinnison, who has been driving motorcoaches for 29 years.
“Usually food is provided to us, depending on the level of devastation at the area we are in, or we eat the MREs (military meals-ready-to-eat) that they give us. We buy peanut butter and jelly and bread. We pack our coolers and bedrolls and pillows and rain gear. I take a lot of water. We bathe on our buses or at truck stops,” she said.
When a motel room is available, drivers may need to share its plumbing fixtures before returning to their coaches to bed down.
“Sometimes we have to try to take turns,” Kinnison said. “Everybody is in it to try to help — every driver and every company. It is part of our job. And I think there is great amount of pride in it. The drivers shared a lot of meals. I made a lot of friends.”
Prepared for worst
While Hurricane Irma caused less devastation than feared, Harvey brought more suffering to the Gulf Coast than many residents could have imagined. Emergency management officials tend to prepare for the worst possible scenarios — such as by ordering lots of supplies and equipment. Then the storm’s devastation can interfere with the deployment of all those resources.
“As with any event, they prepared for the worst and might have had 10 times as much equipment as they needed,” Steelman said. “Because of the flooding, the equipment couldn’t get to a lot of people who needed to evacuate. By the time we would get in, most of them were gone. From what I heard from the guys it went well, but there was a lot of sitting and waiting.”
A Lone Star coach delivered victims from Beaumont, Texas, to an airport where a military plane would evacuate them. The evacuees waited 15 to 18 hours for the plane, Steelman said.
Motorcoach drivers in emergency zones may feel overlooked, but they realize their hardships are temporary. They soon will be going home.
“You want to help these people,” Kinnison said. “Their homes are under water. For the most part they are really calm — I think that’s because they are in shock.
“My impression is that most of them are poor,” she said. “They are carrying their possessions in plastic bags. They were in their home one minute, then the next minute their neighborhood was a lake. They didn’t have a lot. Then they lost everything.”
Steelman’s carriers gave drivers a “thank-you briefing” before sending them to emergency assignments. “We wanted to remind them to be safe, that we weren’t going to be driving through water or do any of the bunch of things that people have died from in the past.
“We tell them they can’t jeopardize their safety and their equipment. The responders don’t need anybody else to rescue, so investigate your routes, don’t go into any risky situations, don’t let the stress get to you. If you have to, take a break.”
Also, Steelman advised, “Put a smile on your face. You are trying to make the situation as pleasant as you can. I would imagine the bulk of the people on the buses were of limited means, but you may have someone who is struggling sitting next to a millionaire. Treat them like any other customer. Get them from Point A to Point B in a timely manner.”
Kinnison said everybody wants to help, “especially when people are down on their luck.”
She spent quite a bit of time with a passenger from Orange, Texas. “Now we are friends.”