Letter Re: First Hand Observations on the Post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans Bus Evacuation

I was a bus driver for the evacuation of the New Orleans Convention Center and figure that I should put my two cents in worth.We drove straight through from Ohio to a staging point (LaPlace) in New Orleans and were escorted to the Convention Center. This was on Saturday morning around 9 a.m. New Orleans time about a week after the dikes let go. We were lucky not to be in the first wave that came into the Super Dome earlier in the week as we heard they were still ordering parts to repair the busses that got busted up when they got mobbed. [By the time that our busses arrived] they had the evacuees fenced off a block from out busses and they only let through enough to load one bus at a time. They were literal bag people and brought what they had in bags and we loaded them up and took off to wait for a escort. We went to a staging site to get the escorts for our first leg of the trip and for all the busses to form up. There were ten in our convoy. We did not know where were going. We were told in Ohio we were going to Texas, but when we got to the staging area we were told we were going to Arkansas. Fort Smith to be exact a old WWII training base with some of the barracks restored. The evacuees needed off the bus to use the restroom and we were told not to let anyone off, but the call of nature reigns, so we let everyone off to pee and smoke before heading for Arkansas. The back story for not letting people off the bus (which we learned couple days later) was that they did this at another location and the people would not return to the bus in a timely manner and looted the site they had stopped at. The number one item looted was alcoholic beverages…so no stops anymore was the order of the day…
We had little food on board, just what folks in Ohio gave us to give to people, Vienna sausages, sardines, and water. Some of the other buses were luck in that they had pallets of MREs and water at the Convention Center and those at the end of the line were loaded up with them for the trip…
We started for Fort Smith with the escorts switching when jurisdictions changed. We were not briefed on the trip and it turned out they were not going to stop for anything. About five hours into the trip the last five busses in the convoy (we were the second bus, but everyone kept passing us) got off the highway and went to a travel center that was turned into a rest
stop for evacuees. Boy talk about a needed break. We needed to get out of the drivers seat for a while. Most of the busses had two drivers and a few had only one. We had two and learned latter that is what FEMA required for the trips, but some companies only sent one driver per bus. We drove straight through from Ohio to Fort Smith switching off every five hours or when we got sleepy. All DOT regulations were suspended for the emergency, no log books, no hours of service everything was suspended. We were running on agricultural fuel as they were so short of over the road fuel. The agricultural fuel is tax free and dyed red, so that the DOT can catch illegal use of non-taxed fuel. Anyway the stop was a evacuees dream come true, A tent with mostly new clothes and other items free for the taking and heater meals and water to drink and flush toilets. Speaking of toilets we did have a toilet on the bus and had to open it up. We were told by the company to keep it locked up, but on a non stop trip that was not going to happen. More on this subject, later. :O(((
We got our break and we told everyone on the bus when they heard us honk the air horn to get back to the bus or they were going to be left behind.
Everyone got back on the bus, but many got on another bus as they did not remember which bus they had been on. So off for Fort Smith again…the next two stops were for fuel as some of the busses had small tanks and did not get topped off at the staging point..We had a 210 gal tank and had topped off just before getting into the affected area as we did not know what the fuel situation was..We saw several mile-long lines at gas stations after we refueled and were happy we refueled when we did.
We got into Fort Smith at 5:30 am and were told no one off the busses….well that did not happen, our toilet was full and the evacuees had been on the bus some 20 hours and needed to stretch their legs and get something to eat. They had busses lined up what seemed like a mile on base. We could not figure out what was going on. We let the evacuees off as there
was a mess hall serving food, but they could not remove any items from the bus. Well it was 7 PM before they off loaded from our bus and the local authorities were stripping everything off the busses and going through everything and I mean everything. They took all our water and food off, so we did not have anything for any other evacuee we might be hauling, and they went through everything the evacuees had. They were looking for weapons and alcohol in particular and anything that might be considered looted items.
So expect to get searched. If it is a biological or chemical issue then expect everything you got to be trashed and then you will be issued clean items to wear and sleep in.
Anyway, we went to a hotel and spent the next day cleaning the bus up. The smell was unimaginable from the sardines and people who had not showered for a week or more and the toilet, which we dumped the next day…but we were lucky..on some of the buses people just went where they were and there were wet seats and other stuff laying around.  It looked like a party was going on with all the whiskey and wine bottles we found…
We heard that they relocated everyone from Fort Smith to smaller sites like Bible camps in the middle of nowhere and the evacuees were told they were not allowed to leave the site, but then again some of these sites were several miles from anywhere, so they had nowhere to go… The evacuees had no idea of where they were going when evacuated, some were flown to other places, some were bussed. Families were split up and they had no idea of where the rest of the family was. One story going around was that a lady wanted to know where her father was going and the guard she was talking too did not understand and she explained they put him on the plane that had just taken off, separating the family. They did not keep track of anyone and where they were going. They dealt with this issue once they got evacuees to a shelter/final destination.
We did not carry any more evacuees even though we were there for three weeks, sometimes sleeping on the busses due to lack of housing. It was very chaotic, more than what I am used to, out on disasters. I did enjoy my three weeks as my past disaster experiences prepared me for this one. The only regret was not being able to stock up on all the MREs that they had lying around. Pallets of them…I just got one or two at a time for meals…
I have been out on disasters for over ten years now and they are all chaotic at best especially the big events. They are too big to get a handle on in short order. They can take from days to weeks to get out of the chaos stage and into some kind of organization. The politics can be horrible to say the least…
If you have not been through one first hand and want to see what it is like before you are affected by such an event find a humanitarian aid organization and volunteer to go out on a or several disasters. It is a eye opening experience and very good to understand what you might be going through if an event happens in your area.
My take on the Asian Avian flu is that we will be sheltered in place which is isolation of the people infected with bird flu from the rest of us. We will have to fend for our selves in our homes or business pending on when the quarantine is issued. Hopefully you will be at home when the quarantine is issued. Figure essential personal will have to live at heir work locations to keep the power, water, sewer, phone, etc.. going. Have heard that care packages may have to be made up and delivered to residences if the quarantine is long term. Basically take a Tupperware container fill it with stuff–food water, etc.. and tell everyone to stay in their homes until it is dropped off on the porch and then after the people
delivering it leave then they can get it. Dealing with the sick and dead will be an issue, just hope you do not get sick. Mass evacuations are a last resort in a bird flu situation as it raises the risk of spreading the illness not controlling its spread. You end up in a mass shelter you will have a higher risk of getting the flu. Keeping people in their homes and restricting contact with others is the best defense. If you have any questions, I can try and answer them. Thanks, – Ron