As many as 39,000 people could be stranded in New Orleans without a way to get out of the city if a hurricane threatens the Gulf Coast this season, officials said recently.
Emergency officials preparing for the peak of hurricane season are worried there may not be enough buses to help people evacuate and they want to avoid the gut-wrenching scenes that followed Hurricane Katrina — people stranded in the Superdome, on rooftops begging for water, food and rescue.
“If a big hurricane begins heading into the Gulf Coast, there could be five states scrambling to get buses,” said Matthew Kallmyer, deputy director of the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness. “At some point it becomes a checkbook issue, who can write the big check quickest.”
Under guidelines developed after Katrina struck in August 2005, no shelters in New Orleans or surrounding parishes will open if a Category 3 or greater hurricane heads this way and government officials issue a mandatory evacuation.
That means the elderly, people with special medical needs and others without transportation will need a ride out of town. That’s as many as 25,000 in New Orleans alone, not including the nearby parishes.
Louisiana has negotiated for 700 commercial coach-style buses for use in all Southeast Louisiana, Kallmyer said.
“We may well have to depend on city and state assets for an evacuation,” Kallmyer said.
School buses are an option, but cost and legal liability issues remain, he said.
The city could press Regional Transit Authority buses into service, he said. RTA now has about 58 buses and hopes to have another 38 by the end of August, spokeswoman Rosalind Cook said.
School buses seat 45 passengers, RTA buses seat less than 55.
“We might be able to use city buses to take people short distances, to Baton Rouge, for instance,” Kallmyer said. “But I don’t think those buses can make long halls.”
But the RTA said that’s not part of their plans, Cook said.
“At no time has the city ever told us they might use RTA buses for evacuation,” Cook said. “That’s the state’s obligation.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also hopes to contract for Amtrak trains to carry evacuees from New Orleans. That could move between 6,000 and 9,000 people, Kallmyer said.
St. Bernard Parish, which flooded completely after Katrina, estimates it will have to evacuate as many as 500 people, has 10 buses of its own. The plan is for those buses to round people up throughout the parish and take them to a central location where state buses will meet them.
“We’re promised we’ll have the buses if we need them,” said John Rahaim Jr., assistant director of the St. Bernard Parish office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “But the question may be who pulls the trigger on evacuation first. You know, the cone of possibility for a storm to land can sometimes cover Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. And that means those states will all be looking at the same group of buses.”
Jefferson Parish has more than 40 transit buses, according to Charles Hudson, the assistant director of the parish Emergency Management Department. Again, the plan is to have them help about 13,000 people make it to a central location for evacuation.
And there could be more complications.
The Democrat and Republican presidential conventions will be in August and September, prime-time of hurricane season.
“And every bus company in the country will have their buses there to haul delegates around,” Kallmyer said
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