A Bus Driver’s Account
By Tom BonDurant
ABA member Little Rock Tours assisted in disaster relief from Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in late August. Driver Tom BonDurant offers this first-person account of what it was like to be part of that effort.
Things move fast when hurricanes move slow. Hurricane Harvey is looming in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s moving as slow as a snail, and that’s bad news. Spinning over the warm gulf water means it’s gaining strength like the boiler of a steam locomotive.
Yet, there’s no time to waste. I’m told, “Get your stuff together, and be ready to hit the road ASAP.”
Little Rock to San Antonio is a bit of a putt—600 miles. We needed to be there yesterday.
San Antonio is the staging area for disaster relief teams. Buses from just about every state arrive around the clock, quickly filling the parking lot of the AT&T Center, the city’s indoor arena. Medical professionals gather at one end of its vast asphalt area with ambulances, control center vehicles, and search-and-rescue equipment.
At the check-in point, our credentials are scrutinized, our buses are inspected, and tracking devices are issued. Now it’s time to hurry up and wait. Because the storm hadn’t hit the coast, authorities didn’t know yet where to send their “angels of mercy.” That’s what they called us, but, in reality, we are just a bunch of average “Joes” and “Joesettes” who have a soft spot for our brothers and sisters in peril.
Motel rooms are scarce. Drivers know they’ll be living aboard their buses. It was time to break out air mattresses, sleeping bags, and blankets. If a driver didn’t bring such things, fortunately, a Walmart was nearby, and there was a shuttle every two hours. All in all, we spent five days waiting.
What were the ups and downs of the experience of disaster relief? On the plus side, I had my own room with a private bath (the bus), air conditioning, meals (cold, but edible), and plenty of coffee. At the staging area, I had transportation to showers, three hot meals a day, and all the free ice I needed.
The negatives? I was on call 24/7. My sleep was frequently interrupted. There was little communication from the “powers that be.” The whole time I knew that if I were dispatched it was going to be a long haul.
Finally, after nearly a week of waiting, I’m driving one of 17 buses sent to Victoria, Texas, about 120 miles to the southeast (midway between Houston and Corpus Christi). I’m told we’ll be making a second pickup closer to the coast in Bloomington, Texas.
Four state trooper cars escorted us. Our instructions were short and sweet: Stay close to the bus in front of you. Because our top speed was 35 to 40 mph for 120 miles, that was easy to do.
We saw no evidence of the big blow until we were about two-thirds of the way to Victoria. Many trees had blown over, and some homes and buildings had lost their roofs. I saw totally destroyed buildings and so many downed power lines that I doubt Victoria had any electricity. We loaded seven buses and headed for Bloomington for our second pickup.
The trooper leading the convoy took us on a wet, but not flooded, four-lane highway. We were in total darkness except for our headlights and police cars’ emergency flashers. We slowed down and made a left onto a rain-soaked mud road.
I was the fifth bus in the convoy, and as soon as I saw this muddy mess of a road, I thought, “This is a big mistake.” But I followed a state trooper, so I told myself he must he know what he is doing.
After going about a mile-and-a-half through the muck, we stopped. The lead bus had made a right turn and was leaning to the right and sitting lower in the rear than he should have been, much lower. He put his bus in a ditch, and it was resting on its frame. He had no hope of moving, and a tow truck had been called. The lead trooper said there was no way to go forward. We had to back all the buses out. What are the odds that 16 buses would all successfully go in reverse for a mile-and-a-half on a rain soaked, mushy mud road in total darkness?
All 16 buses made the trek, in reverse, and not one hit a ditch or the flooded fields on either side of this “road.” That’s why they call us professionals.
As it turned out, no one was waiting for us in Bloomington, so we headed back to San Antonio. The buses that picked up folks in Victoria went to Austin, where shelters and hotels were available.
Are you wondering why so many bus drivers and bus companies do this sort of work? The answer is simple. All it takes is to see the expressions of appreciation, gratitude, and love on the faces of the beautiful people who needed our help.
None of this would have been possible without the goodness of the American spirit and the generosity of business owners such as Cary and Gina Martin of Little Rock Tours and others like them. They know that helping neighbors in need is a wonderful thing. It is a good feeling to be a part of such an organization. Hurricane Harvey is long gone, but the folks who helped others in need will remember it forever.