Buses will help Coast clear out

GULFPORT - New evacuation transportation plans will rely on public transit and school buses moving people with limited transportation from community staging areas to a central location and then north to Jackson.

Coast Transit Authority will oversee and implement the plan in Harrison County when emergency managers call for evacuations, but the bulk of the vehicles to be used will be school buses. Meeting points will be announced for each city and in the county.

School buses from local districts will shuttle people to a central area where buses arranged for by MEMA will take them upstate. If FEMA does not provide charter buses, school buses from across Mississippi arranged by the State Department of Education will take them upstate.

The plans received special attention from Gov. Haley Barbour, who worried about folks who'd lost their cars and trucks to Hurricane Katrina.

"But we still think they're much better off if they use their own transportation if they have it," said Mike Womack, who Monday was named MEMA's interim director effective Saturday, when Robert Latham retires. "But if they don't, if they have a friend or family member that they can ask now, they're much better off if they develop their own transportation plan."

CTA will augment the evacuation efforts in Harrison County by getting people who lack the ability even to get to the staging areas. Regardless, it wants people to preregister so planning efforts can continue.

"They can go ahead and start calling us immediately for transportation," CTA Executive Director Kevin Coggin said. "It's very important we establish as best we can the number of people we're going to be dealing with so we know what kind of resources we need to have."

Womack said MEMA's plans are being drawn up to move 5,000 people, a figure they admit is probably higher than it will need.

Harrison County Emergency Management Director Joe Spraggins estimates 1,000 to 1,500 people might need the service in his county.

Similar programs are being implemented in Hancock and Jackson counties, which are also preregistering people. Hancock County Emergency Management Director Brian Adam thinks his numbers could be 250 to 800, and Butch Loper, his counterpart in Jackson County, anticipates 1,000 users.

"What's going to be the true test is the first case," said Loper.

Jackson County evacuees would be taken to the Meridian area. Residents from Harrison and Hancock counties will be evacuated to the Jackson area, with Vicksburg as a backup.

"They'll have nurses on the bus, security on the bus," Spraggins said. "They'll have qualified bus drivers to get people to that point. Then, they'll have security and everything there. It's a good deal for people and it's at no cost."

State Education Superintendent Hank Bounds will address the state's superintendents at their meeting Wednesday. The Education Department has to gather information from the districts to ensure they can provide the buses with minimum disruption once the new school year starts.

They'll also be on the hook to provide school nurses and security and maintenance personnel.

"The logistics of that are quite a task to get your hands around," he said.

He said even the threat of a tropical storm would cause problems this year with 38,000 trailers being used by area families.

A recent MEMA survey to gauge the need for this service didn't collect contact information from respondents, so officials in all three counties stress that people who think they'll need the service should register now.

That doesn't mean they'll be ruled out down the road, however.

"If a storm comes and somebody calls our number, we'll take care of them," said Coggin.

Evacuation preregistration

People with transportation problems that would prevent them from evacuating are being encouraged to preregister for plans being put in place:

 Harrison County: Coast Transit Authority, 896-8080.

 Hancock County: Emergency Operations Center: 466-8200 or 463-1035.

 Jackson County: Erin Lee, 762-2455.