Hurricane Irene Could Have Been Worse, Still Leaves Challenges for Student Transporters


With Hurricane Irene passing into Canada, schools from North Carolina to New England were left cleaning up the wreckage and dealing with flood waters as many schools were starting the new school year.

Judith Dupille, the director of vehicle safety and compliance services for the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, said the storm could have been much worse, despite many downed trees and power lines and widespread flooding that closed routes 2 and 91. Schools were still on summer vacation, with most expected to open on time later this week, though school districts in Springfield, Templeton and Westfied in the western part of the state remained closed due to flooding. Dupille added that school buses in Westfield had to be moved to a different location because of the threat of a “wash out.”

Still, CBS News reported that Irene was responsible for at least 27 deaths in eight states. The storm also left millions without power across much of the Eastern Seaboard, and forced airlines to cancel more than 13,000 flights.

Waterbury (Conn.) Public Schools cancelled school Monday, according to the district’s website, after Irene flooded the area and left many residences and businesses without power. The Republican American reported that power in Naugatuck, Conn., might not be restored until Tuesday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posted a video that showed how Irene developed over the past week from a tropical storm to a full-blown hurricane.

As the storm beared down on North Carolina and the rest of the Atlantic seaboard late last week, school was cancelled in several school districts. All Dare County Public Schools, which serves the coastal North Carolina community of Cape Hatteras, remained closed until Sept. 1, according to David Twiddy, the district’s transportation director.

Dare County was certainly one of the hardest hit in the state, as Twiddy said 85 percent of the county was flooded, The county stretches from the Albermarle Sound south to Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks and to the Pamlico Sound.

David Twiddy told School Transportation News last week that the call was made Wednesday evening at 7:30 p.m. in consultation with the district’s emergency management department. Twiddy dispatched drivers to retrieve all school buses on the island but for two vehicles, one bus and one van, that could be needed for evacuations. The district opened two area schools to serve as evacuation centers.

In preparation, a mandatory evacuation of all 34,000 local residents began at 8 a.m. on Friday, he added. Evacuees including those from Cape Hatteras, where Irene made landfall after previously cutting across Puerto Rico and several Carribean islands and affecting south Florida, were brought to a central location, where the district buses transported residents to one of three different shelters. The shelters were located inland in Greenville and in Halifax and Rocky Mount in the eastern part of the state.

“Our districts on the coast that are affected, they really are plugged in with their local emergency management,” said Derek Graham, the transportation section chief at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. “They’re on top of it.”

Thursday was the first day of school for most counties in the state. Dare County’s website said make-up days would be held on Saturday, Sept. 10, and Wednesday, Nov. 23. Both makeup days will be half-days. In addition to classes, all after-school activities were also cancelled this week, including an after-school enrichment program. All full-time employees were at work Thursday to make preparations for the evacuation and shuttering of classrooms and other school buildings.

Twiddy, a 24-year veteran of student transportation, said he has lived through four or five hurricanes, and each one is different. He added that, at the current magnitude, which at this writing was a category 3, Irene could ultimately prove to be the worst he’s seen.

Up the coast, schools were glued to the weather reports. Montgomery County (Md.)  Public School students were scheduled to start classes on Aug. 29.

“All of our people are keeping an eye on the weather and we have all of our normal emergency procedures we will follow should we need to, which will include making a judgement about school opening the first day,” said a Montgomery County (Md.) Public School spokesperson. “As of now we’re planning on opening as scheduled.”

But as of Monday, the district said on its website that it continued to work with the local electricity company to restore power to six schools that remain without power.

Alvin Hampton, transportation director of Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools, said areas west of Interstate 95 near the D.C. area were forecast to receive a lot of rain and wind but that the brunt of the storm should stay to the east. Still, the transportation department and the entire school system remained on alert for flooded roads and downed trees and power lines.

“If we need to be out Sunday checking the roads, then we’ll be out Sunday checking the roads to give the superintendent an update as to whether we need to cancel school,” said Hampton, as Irene is forecast to hit the D.C. area over the weekend.

He added that a hurricane warning 10 or 12 years ago forced school closures in Loudoun County and in neighboring counties in northern Virginia and into Maryland.

Meanwhile, school doesn’t start in the Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools system until after Labor Day, so the hurricane was neither expected to affect any regular  transportation operations nor any of the special programs already in session, said district Transportation Director Linda Farbry. She added that buses are standing by to help with any evacuations necessary for the low-lying areas of the state. In addition, the transportation department was analyzing where the buses are parked and was prepared to move the vehicles to keep them free from falling trees or from flood waters.

A spokesperson with the New York City Department of Education said last week the district was being told Irene could hit the area by late Sunday or early Monday. However, the storm was not expected to affect student transportation as school does not begin until Sept. 8.

The Atlantic City Board of Education in New Jersey posted a statement on its website that school would be closed on Friday, Aug. 26.