|Flo Larrison, Toms River School Transportation association president, describes what her local’s bus drivers experienced as they evacuated residents for shore communities. Larrison and the presidents of nearly all the local associations in Ocean County met in the NJEA UniServ office in Toms River on Nov. 8 to discuss hurricane issues and plan relief efforts.
School bus drivers for the Toms River school district have a perspective on the approach and impact of Hurricane Sandy that few other NJEA members share. They were called into service to transport evacuees before and during the storm, and to assist in re-entry after it.
Flo Larrison, president of the Toms River School Transportation Association, explained that drivers may voluntarily sign up to be on a “red alert” list to be available for mass transportation during emergencies. She noted that many more drivers than were on that list took the initiative to help during Hurricane Sandy.
“Drivers just showed up,” she said. “You know as a bus driver that you’re going to be needed and you show up.”
Just “showing up” was a considerable challenge, given that many of the drivers had no electricity or land-line phone service at home—and even cell phone service was spotty. Some communicated through text messages, but quite a few arrived at the bus yard without an advance call.
“We have a large bus fleet—about 160 buses, and 130 drivers—and more than 100 buses were on the road,” Larrison said.
Larrison noted that evacuations started slowly compared to Hurricane Irene in August 2011. There were over 300 evacuees in the first wave of Irene evacuations; for Sandy, there were only about 70.
“People held off from evacuating because of what happened with Irene, but there were massive amounts after the first day,” Larrison said.
In addition to a driver, each bus had an escort from the Toms River police department.
According to the Christie administration, 280 troopers from eight states assisted New Jersey law enforcement. These deployments were made under the provisions of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) mutual aid agreement between the states.
Larrison noted that Pennsylvania state police not only patrolled, but assisted residents with clean-up tasks such as moving large appliances. Louisiana was among the states sending troopers, reciprocating for New Jersey’s state police, who had been dispatched to the Gulf States following Katrina.
Drivers do more than transport evacuees
Toms River bus drivers transported not only people, but pets, materials needed in bulk, and large quantities of food for the shelters.
“We even evacuated a pig,” Larrison said, noting that dogs, cats, and reptiles came along for the ride. “Especially for the elderly, sometimes all they have is their pets, and we knew that many people would stay in their homes if they had to leave their animals behind.”
Larrison said that the drivers did not simply pick up and drop off evacuees.
“People were cold, wet, and disoriented, and they needed help with the check-in process,” Larrison said.
The bus drivers helped them get through that process, helping them get warm and dry, and making sure they got a hot meal.
During Hurricane Katrina, Toms River police learned, motorists would move barriers to cross restricted intersections. To avoid that situation here, the Toms River drivers were called upon to position their buses as road blocks along Route 37.
Entire community pulls together
Larrison reports that every level of school district community—from top-level administration to part-time staff—got involved in the relief effort without hesitation. With three district schools used as shelters, many school staff volunteered to help out.
Larrison could not say enough about the leadership of Margaret Donnelly, the director of transportation for Toms River schools.
“She never seemed overwhelmed and worked so well under pressure,” Larrison said.
Businesses also pitched in.
“Shop-Rite was just giving away food—whatever we needed, and the buses were used to transport the food to the shelters,” Larrison said.