APTA | Passenger Transport
September 8, 2008

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As Gustav Threatened, Transit Agencies Responded
By Leslie Bucher, Special to Passenger Transport

With the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina still reverberating in New Orleans and elsewhere, the threat of a major hurricane—in this case, Gustav—mobilized federal, state, and local officials to action.

Virtually three years to the day of Hurricane Katrina’s wrath and catastrophic flooding, New Orleans showed the world it was taking no chances with Gustav. Although the Category 2 storm had weakened by the time it made landfall on Louisiana’s southeast coast in the late morning of Labor Day, all but 10,000 of the city’s estimated 300,000 residents had already left town following a mandatory evacuation order by Mayor Ray Nagin.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal activated 5,000 National Guardsmen, ordering 1,500 of them to New Orleans well before the storm hit. Also, two days ahead of Gustav’s arrival, the city activated its City Assisted Evacuation Plan (CAEP), providing transportation to more than 9,000 of the city’s neediest from 17 pre-designated sites to the nearby Union Passenger Terminal train station to await subsequent state-provided transport to out-of-town safe shelters.

The driving force of CAEP—literally—was the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which supplied 40 buses to provide free rides to any New Orleans resident who needed them. The agency also moved other vehicles, including 35 new biodiesel-powered buses, out of the city for safety.

“We lost 200 buses during Katrina,” explained RTA Public Information Manager Rosalind Blanco Cook. “Our efforts this time were 100 percent more organized, at the city, state, and federal level, so people didn’t feel so left out and alone—it worked a lot better than I ever dreamed it would.”

Cook also said that, once the city reopens to residents, RTA will provide the same service in reverse to bring the evacuees back home, ending an often frustrating three-day stay in shelters.

Officials are reportedly taking quiet pride in the historic evacuation, with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff commending all for heeding the call to evacuate. “The reason you’re not seeing dramatic stories of rescue is that we had a successful evacuation,” he said.

Another example of careful and effective planning allowed the safe evacuation of 550 residents from coastal Harrison County, MS, by bus well before Gustav’s arrival. Three days before the storm, the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency put into effect a transportation plan that urged all persons requiring transportation to pre-register with the Coast Transit Authority (CTA) in Gulfport. The simple pre-registration process asked residents to describe the transportation needed, as well as any special needs such as medical conditions and, for the first time, pets.  “We’d already had 350 people registered with us for evacuation transportation,” said CTA’s Kevin Coggin, who also serves as vice president, urban systems, for the Mississippi Public Transit Association. “Once the transportation plan went into effect, that number went up to 850 in just two short days.”

According to Coggin, CTA evacuated 550 coastal residents—among them 28 special needs passengers—along with three cats, one dog, and two parakeets.

“We’re livin’ and learnin’,” said Coggin, a lifelong resident of Mississippi. “We’re doing good here. Everything went very orderly and it was a good test of our plan. Now we’re busy bringing everyone back to where they belong—and keeping our eyes on the next storm.”

Other neighboring state transit areas simply awaited the opportunity to provide transportation. For example, according to Executive Director Betty Wineland of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority in North Little Rock: “Friday before the storm we got a call from the airport requesting buses, but they did not call us back, so plane travel must have been lighter than expected. We’ve got about 5,600 evacuees here now in Arkansas ... during Katrina it was 15,000.”

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