Before Hurricane Katrina, evacuation transportation services were only available for persons with special needs. The results of that devastating storm caused the realization that a program was needed that offers services to the general public. Immediately after Katrina, Coast Transit Authority (CTA) was designated as the Transportation Coordinator for the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency (EMA). We were responsible for the initial development of an evacuation transportation plan for the general public in Harrison County and the ongoing management of that plan. We also provide similar services for the City of Ocean Springs, which is located in Jackson County.
The main goal of the new plan was to be prepared to provide evacuation transportation services to anyone that requested assistance. No one would be left in harms way for lack of transportation or financial resources. We also wanted to use local resources and personnel to care for our citizens instead of being reliant on outside help. The new program was available at the beginning of the 2006 hurricane season. Fortunately we did not have to use it.
The new program has three key elements. A registration program, pre-event evacuation transportation and emergency services after an event. CTA manages a year-round registration program that enables people to pre-register for evacuation services. This program gives our citizens comfort that assistance is available and enables us to plan to provide an adequate level of resources. The evacuation element has two phases.
The first phase provides for transportation out of the county to move people completely out of harms way. The EMA highly encourages people to leave. CTA, in conjunction with the local school systems, provides transportation to a centralized staging area where the state is responsible for transporting people out of the county and caring for them for the duration of an event. The second phase provides transportation to local shelters as last resort. We also transport people with pets to a local shelter that is designated for that purpose. After an event, CTA provides whatever services are required to support recovery. Each event is unique and requires different levels of effort. We provide services in support of the local shelters as long as they are open, including services from residential areas to the Points of Distribution so people can access ice, food and water, and to medical clinics, hospitals and dialysis units.
Coordination and communication is critical to the success of the plan. We meet with other members of the EMA on a regular basis to refine our plans and participate in all inclusive group meetings before and after each event. The CTA staff uses the same process in house. Everyone is very clear as to what their responsibilities are. Essential personnel cannot evacuate. They must be available to perform their assigned duties. CTA’s state-of-the-art communication system allows our staff to speak with each other without interruption. The system worked flawlessly during and after Katrina while many other organizations could not communicate at all. We evaluate and update our plans after each event to ensure that we are providing the quality and quantity of services that are necessary.
Needless to say things can get very interesting very quickly. It is comforting to all involved that we have an effective plan in place to assist the communities we serve when these events occur.
As I look out my office window onto miles of parkland, the sun illuminating the southern faces of the mountains mere miles away, I am amazed at how quickly Anchorage weather changes and impacts our bus-operating world. Two weeks ago, we had white-out conditions, six accidents in a weekend and temperatures below zero degrees. Today, we’ve gained about an hour of sunlight, the temperature is about 45 degrees Fahrenheit and many roads have been plowed with literally tons of snow hauled to the snow dumps.
Our bus system endures periods of extreme weather, not unlike some of the northern cities in the Lower 48 states with one main difference — Anchorage winters last seven months. Cold temperatures and fluctuations can cause icing problems on the streets and on some of the less-traveled roads our buses travel. Along with cold winter temperatures comes the dark that Alaska is famous for. During those winter months, our daylight can last for less than six hours reducing visibility and heightening vigilance by our drivers. And what might be funny for outsiders, moose on our city streets are also a serious driving concern. Deep snows in the mountains drive the moose population into the city where finding food is easier for them. Moose dart out into roads in front of vehicles, often resulting in death to the moose and totaled vehicles. The short daylight hours compound the problem because the moose are brown and hard to see in the dark.