Northern California School Bus Driver Recounts Japan Tsunami Evacuation


The phone rang about, or maybe a little before, 3 in the morning. When I answered it, a voice said, “This is not a drill! This is not a drill! This is not a drill! There has been a large earthquake in Japan, and we are on alert. You don’t have to report right now, but be prepared.” The voice was Carlena Horn, our school bus trainer, dispatcher and second in command at the Del Norte County Unified School District transportation compound.

I got up and headed for the shower. I had just gotten out when the phone rang again. It was Carlina again, this time telling me we had been activated. I got dressed, made sure the dog had food and water, tossed a change of clothes into a bag and called my wife, who was out of town, and told her what was happening, then headed to work.

Fortunately, we had been training for this moment for a few years, with some FEMA management training, some information on knowing the tsunami inundation zones, knowledge of the evacuation sites and which roads and highways were in and out of the inundation zones, and the knowledge that we would be working with a couple of other transportation agencies.

This was, however, the real thing, with real evacuations and a tsunami of unknown proportions. Thank goodness for that advance training!

I got to work and checked in. About half the drivers were already there. I was given the keys to a van and told to take the RCT (Redwood Coast Transit) drivers to their bus parking area. A bunch of folks climbed into the van, and we went to get the buses.

They brought the RCT buses to our school district bus compound because the school district site is the command center for all transportation in an emergency situation, and RTC’s parking area was on the edge of the possible inundation zone.

Our director of transportation, Pat Jensen, had reported to the incident command center at about 1:30 a.m. She was in radio contact with our dispatch leaders. Handling the direct dispatching of the drivers were Carlina Horn for the school district drivers, Jody McNamera for the RCT drivers, and Diane Dickey for the Coastline drivers.

The RTC has a policy of fueling every day after the shift, but our district policy was to fuel whenever the tank got to the halfway point. A group of us got busy and fueled the school buses that were near the half mark.

We didn’t know when we would have another chance, or how long we would be on duty, or much of anything at that time, except that we were ready.

We were finishing the fueling when we started getting dispatched. It was about 3:30 or 4 a.m. by then. The buses were sent to the downtown areas, to several housing units and to other low-lying areas. We had 18 school buses, 11 RCT buses and five Coastline buses either on the streets or ready to roll throughout the county.

All were evacuated, and we were told to get out of the tsunami inundation areas at about 6:30 a.m. Then we waited, and waited.

We moved from the small confines of the district transportation office to a much larger space in the school district administration area. The dispatchers kept vigil in the office and had several runners to keep the rest of us up to date, or to dispatch us if necessary.

Coffee and food were finally brought to us along with some cots, blankets and pillows. I think it was the cots that really confirmed that we could be there for a long time. We listened to the local radio station as the first surges came and went

About 10 a.m., it was decided to let about half of us go home and get some rest. Ha! Who could sleep? But rest we did — at least I did. I finally had time to call my wife and let her know what was happening. Her place of employment was in the heart of the evacuation zone, and she was headed home.

Those of us who had been sent home got a call later to hang tight for a while longer. The call to come back came in the early evening. We were to return the evacuees — at least most of them. There were some who lived next to the harbor area, and they had to stay and sleep at the evacuation center at our local high school if they had nowhere else to go.

We were dispatched to the high school in the evening, and we took all who were able back to their homes.

Although the mass destruction the area had experienced some decades earlier did not happen this time, we were much more prepared for it. The three transportation agencies working together did so seamlessly. We all knew that whoever the dispatcher in charge was — whether it was Jody, Carlina or Diane (they worked in shifts throughout the day) — we simply did what was asked without any question of who was in charge.

We know that when — not if — the next disaster happens, we can function seamlessly as a single unit again, if we continue to train and practice.

It is a well-known fact that some of us will move on or will retire as we grow older, and newer drivers will take our places. It is imperative, in my opinion, that the community and agencies involved continue to fund the necessary training for the transportation and evacuation of any and all disasters, be they tsunamis, earthquakes, floods or any other unforeseen event in or around our county.