Buses, Trains, and Hurricanes: Transit and Natural Disasters

“Climate change exacerbates the naturally-occurring risks we already face today.”

– Katharine Hayhoe, Climate Scientist and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University


Picture: Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press

In 2017 alone, Atlantic hurricane season saw the formation of 15 named storms, 10 hurricanes, and six major Category 3-5 hurricanes, leaving behind thousands of evacuees with no homes to return to. On the other end of the climate spectrum, wildfires have ravaged Canada’s western provinces, causing the 3,500 residents of Pelican Narrows and the 3,700 residents of Wasagamack and two other communities nearby to evacuate. In 2016, Fort McMurray faced the second largest wildfire in Alberta history. In 2013, Calgary battled a massive flood, isolating Canmore and Banff, with the river speeding through High River, a 13,000-resident town, faster than Niagara Falls.

Natural disasters, unstoppable as they are, require the evacuation of all residents in their path. What then is the role of public transit when it comes to moving people from their homes to safe spaces away from danger? Chris Jordan of Calgary Transit and Tony O’Doherty of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo were able to share with us the heroic tales of transit systems in two of Canada’s costliest climate disasters to date.

When tragedy struck in June of 2013, Calgary and its surroundings drowned in an unexpected flood of the Bow River, leaving thousands of homes stranded and 34,000 locations with no power under eight times the river’s regular seasonal flow rate. With not enough cars to transport every single Calgarian to safety, Calgary Transit stepped in to both contribute to the recovery and keep the rest of the city’s economic activity moving. Coordinating its operations with the fire department, the local police, road authority and emergency management officials who controlled access to and from affected areas, Calgary Transit switched roles from providing transit services to also playing a crucial role in the city’s evacuation. Juggling the several ends of the evacuation process, Calgary Transit worked on communicating with evacuees as well as with customers in unaffected areas. More than 20 bridges were closed and over 50 bus routes were either detoured or cancelled.  The transit system worked on creating ad-hoc bus lanes through partnerships within the municipality in order to reach a greater number of persons in affected areas, but also to service those out-of-danger without taking them into flooded streets. With so many of its own staff affected by the tragedy and unable to report to work, Calgary Transit had to work on some major business continuity management, with many office workers taking on front-line roles in an effort to ensure a flexible deployment of workers and continuity of service. Calgary’s role in the relief effort aided in handling the influx of evacuees, all from moving people from affected seniors’ housing, to transporting supplies to the holding facilities and shelters.

With its servers damaged in the flood, and a major section of its downtown LRT compromised, Calgary Transit was still able to maintain its day-to-day service in the unaffected areas, and coordinate relief efforts with operations and traffic control in the flooded portions of the city, restoring service to the flood-affected areas only ten days later.  The flood-damaged LRT track, signaling and traction power systems were restored within weeks, just in time to host the Calgary Stampede.

City of Calgary employee Jen Malzer writes in-depth for the Institute for Transit Engineers (ITE) on the situation in Alberta and the important role that Calgary Transit played here.


Three years later, the Fort McMurray wildfire became the second largest wildfire disaster in Alberta, costing $9.5 billion  in direct and indirect costs, reaching an area of 590,000 hectares and causing the evacuation of 88,000 residents without any fatalities or injuries. Below is Transit Operations manager Tony O’Doherty’s account of the evacuation and the role that Transit Services played therein.


“The majority of the staff volunteered to stay and help re-open Fort McMurray.” says O’Doherty.


“When the evacuation notice was given to the community, Transit Services stepped up to the plate to assist with the evacuation. Transit Services throughout the community would randomly stop and pickup people on the sidewalk or stranded on the side of the road to bring them to safety.

The evacuation of the hospital was also undertaken by Transit Services. Those people who were immobilized were moved to Firebag about ninety minutes north of the city where the buses were met by a triage unit waiting for their arrival.  With the city shut down and supplies starting to arrive from all over the country, storage became a problem. Transit Services offered the bus bays up as the drop-off zone for food, water, medical supplies and clothing. The transit facility operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, receiving and distributing goods to the first responders and other team members who helped to reopen the community.”


“During this time all the Transit Employees remained to help reopen the city. Many of Transit’s employees have come from other countries and their response about staying or leaving was always along the lines of “This is our opportunity to give back to a country and a city which has given us so much.”


Following the Fort McMurray wildfire, Transit Services received several awards for their outstanding service.


“Alberta Hospital Services sent us a thank you letter from its Chairman for the service accomplished by Transit staff. The Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) recognized Transit Services for its outstanding service to the community. These awards are posted on a wall in our driver’s lounge.”


“One item which remains outstanding for Transit staff is the framed Tee-Shirt. Everyone who worked the wildfire incident took a turn signing this t-shirt as a memory of what they all had contributed to the rebuilding of Fort McMurray. It is a sacred to all who were there.”


In Houston, Texas where hurricanes Harvey and Irma have caused enormous amounts of destruction, transit also played an important role. “METRO has emerged among the heroes of Hurricane Harvey,” writes Laura Bliss for CityLab. “After discontinuing service just before the storm made landfill on August 25, the agency gamely positioned vehicles on high ground to ready them for emergency response. Operators transported some 8,000 individuals evacuated from dangerously flooded neighborhoods to shelters around the county, according to METRO CEO Tom Lambert. Paratransit operators fielded emergency calls during the storm. Bus drivers coordinated quickly with firefighters and police officers to rescue stranded drivers.”


Public transit remains the number one travel option for mass transportation, and for those who don’t own a car in times of natural disasters, that can mean their only chance of survival. In Canada, transit staff have been crucial time and again in saving countless lives as a result of their own decision to lend out a hand to those in need. Thank you for your heroic service.

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