Coming to Coast Transit Authority (CTA) in Gulfport, Miss., the morning after Hurricane Katrina, Kevin Coggin, executive director, found the property under 3 feet of water. "All of our equipment had some water damage. All the offices had a foot of water, the shop had 2 feet. It took us a week to get everything cleaned up so we could run anything."
Fortunately, help was there to get the buses out on the streets as quickly as possible. "We've had a lot of help from a lot of people," Coggin emphasizes. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), FEMA, the Community Transit Association of America (CTAA) and APTA were some of the organizations that were there after the storm. Coggin states, "The CTAA came here immediately after the storm and was on the ground here in constant contact with us, assisting us in recovery.
"The FTA and CTAA were instrumental in us getting the FEMA mission assignment; it is what FEMA calls its emergency operating assistance." This operating assistance allowed CTA to provide free service and restore service from October 2005 through the end of February 2006.
Coggin adds, "The FTA came immediately after the storm and provided day-today transit planning assistance, provided a consultant to give us constant help." He continues, "They did two things. They gave us deferred local match on our federal subsidies, which gave us an opportunity to meet the immediate need and worry about the money later, and they gave us daily access to transit planning help through DMJM Harris. It was a tremendous help to us to get through the crisis period."
With the assistance the agency was receiving, it was able to be up and running one week after the storm. "We had a fixed route service back out on the street and we were running demand response with no restrictions," Coggin says. "Whatever people called for, we just did it."
People had lost their homes and lost their automobiles. They were trapped in these hurricane-damaged communities and they were desperate. The community relied on public transportation for help during this time. Coggin explains, "Our routes were designed to connect life support, recovery, rebuilding services." The routes connected people to all the hospitals, medical clinics, the Disaster Relief Center and the Points of Distribution. "People had access to Disaster Relief Centers, kind of like one-stop shopping where all the governmental agencies are there, FEMA, MEMA, Red Cross, Salvation Army, all those people are there," Coggin says.
Building a Career in Transit
This was all probably more than Coggin had ever imagined when he started as a diesel mechanic working at a local Detroit Diesel engine distributor in Biloxi, Miss. From there it was Hausman Bus Sales, which introduced him to the bus industry. A larger competitor bought out the company and the branch closed.
In September of 1989, Coggin went to work at Coast Transit Authority as a maintenance supervisor. "Similar to what I was doing at Hausman Bus Sales," he explains. "I was doing the same thing, managing the maintenance program."
As the company grew, Coggin got more into the business end of things. "I got into things like procurement, construction projects, those kinds of things," he says. "Spending all the money," he adds with a laugh. "I wasn't responsible for worrying about how to pay for it, just spending it all."
The CTA board of directors appointed Coggin as executive director in September of 2003 and he has been enjoying it since - challenges included. "The job is definitely not monotonous as anybody in the transit business knows," he says. "It's a very dif- fi cult fi eld to be in, very challenging to keep it going and to grow it." Coggin adds, "It's very gratifying to be successful in doing a job that's hard to do."
It is a good thing he likes a challenge. Dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may have taken over his agenda in the last year but CTA has always been challenging covering such a large service area with a diverse ridership. CTA serves three coastal counties, providing fixed-route and ADA/paratransit services to Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties.
With such a large coverage area, keeping the demand response service effective and cost effective has been demanding. "We take senior citizens to day centers everyday, we take them grocery shopping once a week and we'll take them to doctor's appointments up to three times a week." Coggin adds, "It's an excellent program, we're very proud of it." CTA also takes mentally disabled adults to day work centers. Coggin says, "All these senior citizens and all these adults, we provide the means for them to continue as productive citizens and it really means a lot to them. They really are happy with what we do for them, they really like it."
Rebuilding a Community
Coggin talks about the challenges of rebuilding and stresses, "Our biggest challenge is to be a part of a community, to grow the public transit system, to be responsive and to be a part of the growth of the community from the rebuilding of Katrina.
"The communities want public transportation to be planned as part of the growth, not an afterthought," Coggin says. A governor's commission kicked off the recovery plan and each individual city, community and county is going through the planning and rebuilding efforts.
CTA was the lead provider of evacuation transportation prior to Hurricane Katrina but as Coggin explains, it has become more organized post Katrina. "We're now an integral part of the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency and we are the transportation coordinator for the county not just for evacuation transportation but for emergency transportation period." He stresses, "There is a plan. It is more structured, more organized."
A year-round registration system for people in Harrison County is just one part of the planning process. People that think they may need evacuation transportation are screened and preregistered. CTA provides the out-of-town transportation but not the buses. "Our equipment stays local; we're managing the coordination effort, the state agency, to bring in buses and to take people out of the county."
There are still 30,000 to 40,000 people living in the area in FEMA campers. Much of the displaced population has moved out of the coastal area and into the upper part of the three southern counties. "We're working now to put together a work transportation program to fi nd out where all the folks are and provide a transportation link from where they're living to the jobs that are reestablishing on the coast," Coggin explains. "We have a lot of manufacturing, a lot of shipyards, a lot of casinos, a lot of major employers." He adds, "We want to keep people connected to the coast, those jobs.
"If we can keep them employed on the coast and interested in the coast, we're hoping they'll move back home." The housing shortage means there are not enough workers and businesses are struggling. Many companies are busing in workers and CTA is developing programs to assist with that.
Staff of the Year
Listening to Coggin talk about the damaged community and working at getting workers to jobs on the coast it is easy to forget CTA still has problems of its own post Katrina. "Our employees suffered just like the rest of the community. Many of them lost their home, lost everything," Coggin says. "They showed up for work the very next day. The maintenance department started cleaning up, getting buses ready to run, straightening up the maintenance facility so that we could support operations.
"Bus drivers showed up the next day. They recognized the condition the community was in and how important the services are that we provide." He emphasizes, "People needed us more after the storm than they ever did. They desperately needed transportation, public transportation."
Coggin described how one of the CTA drivers was living out of her van and coming to work every day. "She could have been down at the FEMA desk trying to get a trailer to live in but she was at work everyday because she knew that her folks that she carried every day, she knew what kind of condition they were in."
Coggin was not the only one that recognized the sacrifi ces the CTA staff made; the CTAA honored Coast Transit Authority with the 2006 Community Transportation System of the Year award. "That's directly attributed to our employees," Coggin states. "To receive that award was really a true honor for me, to go and receive that award on behalf of our employees."
It has not been easy for CTA and its staff. With the housing shortage, it is also feeling the work force shortage and a year later is still struggling to hire mechanics. "It's getting better, so people are starting to come back," Coggin says. "It's been a challenge to keep an adequate work force going to meet the needs of the community. People want to come back, they want to work, and there is no place for them to live."
Keeping the staff going has meant a strong focus on employee morale year round. The staff often has to go fi ght their own battles with insurance companies, FEMA or contractors. Coggin emphasizes, "We're very conscious that in order for us to provide a good service we have to have good employees and to have good employees we have to have a good work environment.
"You talk to folks and you sympathize with them and work with them," Coggin explains. "Be understanding and be very fl exible with their work.
"We really just try to be as sympathetic as we can and work with them the best we can.
"I had damage to my home but I had a home to live in. To see people coming into work every day, working eight to 10 hours every day, who lost everything really motivated me. Kept my spirits up," he says.
Aid after the Storm
Throughout the conversation, Coggin could not say enough about all of the different agencies and organizations that helped the agency. Providing money and resources, national organizations and federal agencies worked to get CTA on the road again. For future disasters of this nature, there was one improvement he thought could be made, "The Federal Transit Administration needs emergency assistance authority.
"The FTA understands what we do. They shouldn't have to go through another agency." He explains, "The FTA had to go beg money from FEMA to help me." Coggin stresses CTA received much help from FEMA, it is not meant to be critical of FEMA. "A lot of other federal agencies [have emergency assistance authority]. Federal highways, FAA, Maritime Administration, they all have emergency assistance authority when something like this happens.
"They step in and do what needs to be done to maintain services." Again, Coggin emphasizes, "I don't want to sound like a slap to FEMA because it's not. FEMA gave us $1.5 million towards emergency operating assistance allowing us to do things we would not have been able to do.
"I do not believe it is as recognized as it should be how important public transportation is in a catastrophic event and we really need help," Coggin states. "We're hurt bad, the communities depend on us and we really need help providing a service that needs to be provided." After a pause he stresses, "At a time when the community needed us the most, we struggled the most."
With all the help, there are still struggles. "Our congressional delegation is fi ghting very hard to get us help." Coggin explains, "We had $200 million dedicated to transit assistance in the last Hurricane Katrina Relief funding bill to help us and every penny of it was taken out by Congress.
"The Senate put it in there and when it went to congressional committee, the House was successful in having it taken out.
"The president specifically identified that money as something that shouldn't be in there." Coggin elaborates, "He specifically identifi ed public transportation hurricane relief money as something that should not have been in that supplemental bill.
"I currently have a $7.4 million request in to replace my bus fl eet with new vehicles," Coggin says.
Summarizing the catastrophe, Coggin remarks, "We went through the worst and really came out OK thanks to the help of a lot of people." He emphasizes, "I really can't say that enough. Everybody calling, 'what can we do,' 'how can we help' and they continue to do so."
A year later, there is still a long way to go. "We have the mess cleaned up, the debris is cleaned up," Coggin says. "We're really just now starting to rebuild. Businesses are starting to rebuild, people are starting to rebuild their homes."
Coggin shares a laundry list of challenges that the community faces. Many people are struggling with insurance claims and the new base fl ood elevations are forcing people to rebuild. He stresses, "It's going to take a long time to rebuild but everybody's working as hard as they can. Just like us."
Part of that rebuilding is with a governor's commission for recovery that Gov. Barbour initiated immediately after the storm. With CTA heavily involved in the plan, Coggin says, "We're working with each individual community on their plans and the FTA has come up with some recovery, planning assistance money to help us do a new transit development plan. " With the help of DMJM Harris and ECOM, Coggin is optimistic about the short-range plans and long-range plans for the future.
"We've got a really good future that's got the potential to really grow the system to be much larger than we are now." Coggin says, "That is one of the things that is so great about Coast Transit right now. It's the future that looks so great."
It may have been a lot for any agency to go through, but when I first started talking to Coggin he had said he loved the challenge of the public transit business. Though weathering Katrina was more than he could have imagined, he remains optimistic. "It was a good experience for me," he says with a laugh. "I like helping people and when you're successful at it, it's a good feeling."