Getting people where they need to go
By George Spencer
Like other ABA member operators, Empire Coach Line contracts with TMS (Transportation Management Services) to assist with disaster relief in conjunction with FEMA.
Eddie Serrano, the company’s vice president and general manager, and his mother opened their Orlando, Fla.-based family business 12 years ago, starting with one used coach. Today, the company has 37 vehicles. Its business model focuses on running convention shuttles and main-line transportation. The Insider caught up with Serrano to ask him about Empire Coach Line’s ongoing experiences in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Here’s what he told us:
Insider: How long has your company been in this line of work?
Serrano: Our first experience was back with Katrina in 2005. This is probably our third year that we’ve assisted during storm season with evacuation services.
Insider: How does that work?
Serrano: It’s always through a state agency or TMS, which manages contracts through states for emergency services. For the recent hurricanes, it contracted for about 650 buses.
Insider: What sort of roles have your buses undertaken?
Serrano: In Florida, we’ve mostly assisted with nursing homes, evacuating their residents and then moving them back into facilities once they’re safe again. We’ve also done tons of work with restoration efforts, such as working with power companies, tree trimming companies, and moving first responders to different airports that were hit.
Insider: Are these short-term jobs?
Serrano: My first coach probably left my facility on Aug. 23, and at the moment [Oct. 3], we still have 15 coaches out doing some sort of storm-related activity.
Insider: What do your drivers think about this sort of work?
Serrano: It depends on which driver you ask. Some drivers love to do this work. They want to get out there and help with the recovery efforts and get people out of the way of danger. I’ve got drivers that left on that initial trip in August who still have not been home since then. They’re still assisting with that recovery effort.
Sometimes the conditions for the drivers are not always the best. It’s not by choice, but sometimes they go into deeply affected areas where no hotels are available. Drivers are required to sleep in their buses for a few days, but eventually they make their way to better situations. It isn’t always so easy for them. We appreciate what they do. Some of our drivers left their homes here in Florida to go to Houston after Harvey, and the next thing you know, Florida was getting hit and a storm was affecting their own properties. Our drivers have gone above and beyond to help.
Insider: They’re heroes, aren’t they?
Serrano: People don’t realize that bus drivers go out there and do this. We know what a great job they do. No one thinks of a bus driver as a hero, but when you look at the overall picture, they were there before the storm hit, and they were there after the storm hit. It’s great that power company linemen come down from other states, but if it wasn’t for our bus drivers, they wouldn’t be able to get where they need to go.
Insider: How do you prepare in advance for this sort of work?
Serrano: Most operators are contracted and on standby when these things occur. As much as you try to prepare on the paperwork side and hope for conditions to be better, there’s not a whole lot you can do sometimes. If we get a minor hurricane and we’re assisting power companies, that’s a piece of cake, but with Harvey, some drivers lived in their buses for several days. That’s hard to prepare for.
Insider: Do you worry about the risks to your vehicles?
Serrano: I heard many stories of coaches that have gone down a street and ended up in deeper water than expected. In those cases, I know some buses have been totaled from water damage. Fortunately for us, we’ve not had that issue. We rely heavily on local law enforcement. Once we’re there to assist, our vehicles are taken where they need to go by police escort.
Insider: How does it feel to help with disaster recovery and relief efforts?
Serrano: It definitely feels great to go in and hopefully save some lives. I think at one point we had every piece of our equipment—and 25 other coaches we’d contracted for—helping with Harvey and Irma.
George Spencer is a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ABA media.
ABA has joined with Tourism Cares in its industry-wide initiative to help our friends and colleagues who have been affected by recent hurricanes. To donate or learn more, click here.