We asked them to do it. Don't know why the job didn't get done.
Outsourcing: SEP Fields in Action
Busses for New Orleans "Fell through cracks"
Offer of buses fell between the cracks
By Andrew Martin and Andrew Zajac Washington Bureau Fri Sep 23, 9:40 AM ET
Two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, as images of devastation along the Gulf Coast and despair in New Orleans flickered across television screens, the head of one of the nation's largest bus associations repeatedly called federal disaster officials to offer help.
Peter Pantuso of the American Bus Association said he spent much of the day on Wednesday, Aug. 31, trying to find someone at the
Federal Emergency Management Agency who could tell him how many buses were needed for an evacuation, where they should be sent and who was overseeing the effort.
"We never talked directly to FEMA or got a call back from them," Pantuso said.
Pantuso, whose members include some of the nation's largest motor coach companies, including Greyhound and Coach USA, eventually learned that the job of extracting tens of thousands of residents from flooded New Orleans wasn't being handled by FEMA at all.
Instead the agency had farmed the work out to a trucking logistics firm, Landstar Express America, which in turn hired a limousine company, which in turn engaged a travel management company.
Over the next four days, those companies and a collection of Louisiana officials cobbled together a fleet of at least 1,100 buses that belatedly descended on New Orleans to evacuate residents waiting amid the squalor and mayhem of the Superdome and the city's convention center.
The story of the bus evacuation of New Orleans is partly one of heroism by a handful of people who, when called upon, acted quickly and improvised in the face of desperate need.
But the story also underscores a critical failure in the disaster plan: the inability of government to provide even the most rudimentary transportation to take people out of harm's way.
The day before the storm hit Aug. 29, the city of New Orleans had ordered its residents to flee but had not made provisions for upwards of 100,000 residents too old, too poor or otherwise unable or unwilling to leave.
Mayor C. Ray Nagin has acknowledged in television interviews that the city had hundreds of transit and school buses available to at least begin an evacuation ahead of Katrina's arrival but couldn't find enough drivers willing to chance getting caught in the huge storm.
When Katrina's storm surges breached the city's levees, putting much of the city under water, it was up to state officials and FEMA to oversee a gigantic evacuation.
But they, too, were caught unprepared.
Though it was well-known that New Orleans, much of it below sea level, would flood in a major hurricane, Landstar, the Jacksonville company that held a federal contract that at the time was worth up to $100 million annually for disaster transportation, did not ask its subcontractor, Carey Limousine, to order buses until the early hours of Aug. 30, roughly 18 hours after the storm hit, according to Sally Snead, a Carey senior vice president who headed the bus roundup.
Landstar inquired about the availability of buses on Sunday, Aug. 28, and earlier Monday, but placed no orders, Snead said.
She said Landstar turned to her company for buses Sunday after learning from Carey's Internet site that it had a meetings and events division that touted its ability to move large groups of people. "They really found us on the Web site," Snead said.
A Landstar spokeswoman declined comment on how the company responded to the hurricane.
Messages left for a FEMA spokeswoman were not returned.
Snead said she tapped Transportation Management Services of Vienna, Va., which specializes in arranging buses for conventions and other large events, to help fill an initial order for 300 coaches.
"It's like taking your phone book and dividing it in half and saying, `You take half and I'll take half,'" Snead said.
Looking for way to help
Unbeknownst to them, two key players who could reach the owners of an estimated 70 percent of the nation's 35,000 charter and tour buses had contacted FEMA seeking to supply coaches to the evacuation effort.
The day the hurricane made landfall, Victor Parra, president of the United Motorcoach Association, called FEMA's Washington office "to let them know our members could help out."
Parra said FEMA responded the next day, referring him to an agency Web page labeled "Doing Business with FEMA" but containing no information on the hurricane relief effort.
On Wednesday, Aug. 31, Pantuso of the American Bus Association cut short a vacation thinking his members surely would be needed in evacuation efforts.
Unable to contact FEMA directly, Pantuso, through contacts on Capitol Hill, learned of Carey International's role and called Snead.
Pantuso said Snead told him she meant to call earlier but didn't have a phone number.
Finally, sometime after 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Pantuso and Parra had enough information to send an SOS to their members to help in the evacuation.
By the weekend, more than 1,000 buses were committed to ferrying stranded New Orleans residents to shelters in Houston and other cities.
Executive linked to lobby
In a regulatory filing last week, Landstar Express said it has received government orders worth at least $125 million for Katrina-related work. It's not known how much of that total pertains to the bus evacuation.
Landstar Express is a subsidiary of Landstar System, a $2 billion company whose board chairman, Jeff Crowe, also was chairman of the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the nation's premier business lobbies, from June 2003 until May 2004.
Pantuso said changes for the better may be afoot, perhaps even in time to aid the response to Hurricane Rita, now bearing down on Texas' Gulf Coast near the Louisiana border.
"I have been getting a tremendous amount of follow-up from Landstar over the last two days . . . looking for ways to work together in the future," Pantuso said Thursday, adding that he feels "much better about . . . our opportunities to work in a more coordinated fashion."
Whatever happens likely will be good for Landstar's bottom line.
Landstar's regulatory filing also said that because of Hurricane Katrina, the maximum annual value of its government contract for disaster relief services has been increased to $400 million.