As one of the strongest hurricanes in Atlantic coast history took aim at Lake Okeechobee, Fla., Governor Rick Scott called for the mass evacuation of communities around the lake — and Palm Tran was key to helping get everyone to safety.
“Everyone at Palm Tran is committed to safety and community service every day, and our mission becomes even more important in times of crisis,” Palm Tran Executive Director Clinton B. Forbes said. “We evacuated roughly 800 people from the Glades in a matter of hours, and that took significant coordination and a dedicated and well-trained staff,” he added.
Many of Palm Beach County’s most vulnerable citizens, such as those with disabilities and special needs, relied on shelters for safety during the storm. Palm Tran ensured these residents were transported to shelters that met their specific needs.
Boynton Beach resident Anna Maria Defeo says Palm Tran Connection, the region’s paratransit service, was critical during Irma. As a visually impaired resident, she needed Palm Tran Connection to transport her to the special needs shelter at the South Florida Fairgrounds.
“With being afraid and needing the special needs shelter because I’m blind, I was frightened,” Defeo said. “They had it down to a science. It was smoothly run. I don’t know what I would do without Palm Tran Connection. I really don’t.”
Palm Tran Connection responded by making roughly 3,500 paratransit trips throughout the region on Sept. 8th — the day the majority of evacuations took place. Reservationists at the Palm Tran Connection facility worked tirelessly to ensure trips were booked for residents seeking transportation to shelters leading up to and even during the relentless storm.
“They didn’t just dump us out of the buses. The bus actually waited in the line with the people still on the bus. We were still under air conditioning. We didn’t have to go out into the heat and wait in line before entering the fairgrounds,” Defeo said.
Palm Tran adjusted some of its fixed-route services to accommodate shuttling residents to evacuation zones. Bus operators not on duty signed-up to assist with evacuation routes. Everbridge, a mass notification system that utilizes text, e-mail and phone numbers, was used to notify staff about work and shelter assignments. An employee emergency call-in line was updated to reflect scheduling and route changes.
Many of Palm Tran’s administrative staff were also assigned to work at area shelters near their homes. They understood the critical need to assist the community.
“Working in the shelter enriched my life by providing an opportunity to safely evacuate and serve the people of the community,” Antorris Williams, a Palm Tran employee who volunteered at Lake Shore Middle School, said.
Palm Tran, along with other Palm Beach County employees, were the extra workforce needed to handle the influx of people seeking shelter.
“The collaboration with Palm Tran, the School District of Palm Beach County, American Red Cross and other agencies in getting the residents to and from (the shelter at) Seminole Ridge (High School) was excellent. Drivers were extremely patient with older Belle Glade residents,” Kevin Wright, administrative assistant at Glades Central High School, said.
Throughout the storm, members of Palm Tran’s Executive Leadership Team and Management Leadership Team were hard at work at Palm Beach County’s Emergency Operations Center and Emergency Information Center. The teams in these locations received first-hand communication and updates on evacuation needs and information to be disseminated to the public related to the storm.
“It was a humongous effort between Palm Tran and Palm Tran Connection to ensure everyone was brought to safety,” Palm Tran Customer Service Administrator Lina Aragon said.
Following the storm, Palm Tran coordinated with county leaders and other agencies to restore services. Fixed-route and paratransit services were limited while traffic lights were repaired and curfews remained in effect. Palm Tran buses assisted with return evacuation services, bringing hundreds home after the danger had passed. The transition process was safe and swift despite damage and flooding in certain areas. Communicating with the public via social media was crucial after the storm to alert riders when service would be restored. Both fixed-routes and paratransit services were fully operational within three days of the storm.
“It was heartwarming to witness how Palm Tran employees spent time away from their families to help others throughout the entire storm. Their actions helped hundreds have a safe place as Irma battered our community,” Assistant Palm Beach County Administrator Todd Bonlarron said.
“I’m very proud of all Palm Tran employees who rose to the occasion to selflessly help others in the community. The bus operators, supervisors, maintenance workers and entire staff worked long hours to ensure the safety of all residents before, during, and after the storm,” Forbes said.