The destruction caused by Hurricane Charley in southwest and central Florida gave transit agencies and motorcoach operators the opportunity to help community members in need.
The mid-August storm brought heavy winds and downpours that closed roads, destroyed buildings and left many without power for nearly a week.
Lee County Transit (LeeTran) on Florida's southwest coast began operating four designated evacuation routes the day before the storm was scheduled to hit. These routes picked up anyone who wanted to go to a shelter for protection.
Escot Bus Lines in Largo, Fla., helped evacuate nursing home residents in areas threatened by the hurricane and transported them back when the area was deemed safe.
Once the damage had been assessed, local motorcoach operators donated buses to transport Habitat for Humanity volunteers to Polk County — one of the most severely affected areas — to help rebuild homes and remove debris.
Buses were also provided to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, as well as to church groups at discounted rates to assist in the clean-up.
LYNX, which serves Orlando and surrounding areas, was able to begin operating most of its regular routes within 32 hours of the hurricane. The biggest issues facing the agency were power outages combined with hazardous road conditions, said Brian Martin, manager of media relations.
Drivers were told to treat non-functioning signal lights as four-way stops to avoid accidents, he added.
LYNX's fleet weathered the storm with only minor water damage, which Martin attributed to early preparation.
"We parked the buses as tight as possible and then circled them with more buses that we figured we could sacrifice if we had to," he said.
LeeTran continued to shuttle residents and out-of-town visitors to and from shelters while its fixed-route service was down. It also transported volunteers and the county's emergency response team to areas where damage occurred.
Orlando-based Mears Transportation used generators to keep its office operational in the aftermath of the storm, but vehicles were only kept off the road for about 10 hours during the harshest weather.
Mears received some unanticipated business from travelers whose departure was delayed due to the hurricane, said Bret Voisin, VP of sales and marketing.
Jeff Shuler, marketing manager for LeeTran, estimated that approximately 35,000 trips were affected by the hurricane during the agency's four-day closure. He predicted that decreased ridership would continue due to fewer tourists.
"During the actual emergency, the staff really pulled together and played an integral role in helping the community pull through this," said Shuler. "These unfortunate situations really bring everyone closer together."
At press time, Florida was bracing for Hurricane Frances.