Cutler Bay bought two 20-passenger school buses and three 70-passenger buses for $10 dollars each. Each bus was painted an off-white color and decorated with Cutler Bay logos, costing $2,000 for each smaller bus and $3,200 for each larger bus, paid for by matching emergency management contingency funds. The buses can run on biofuel. Photos: Town of Cutler Bay
Though the buses were 12 years old when Cutler Bay purchased them, the interiors were in “very good shape,” says Public Works Director Rafael Casals. “We just knocked off the cobwebs.”

Like many residents of coastal regions, the citizens of Cutler Bay, Fla., know too well the importance of hurricane relief.

Hurricane Andrew ripped through southwest Florida more than a decade ago, devastating Cutler Bay. It took years to recover. In August 2005, mere months after the town incorporated, Hurricane Katrina hit U.S. soil. More than 20 inches of rain flooded the area.

In both instances, first responders were unable to help residents in low-lying areas. “There was no way to get emergency vehicles into the flooded areas,” explains Public Works Director Rafael Casals. “People were trapped.”

This year, though, Cutler Bay is ready.

The town bought five surplus school buses from the Miami-Dade School Board for $10 each, and converted them into emergency vehicles stocked with portable generators, traffic cones and horses, stop signs, and barricades. Because of their extra-high platforms, the buses can get to areas that traditional vehicles, even pickup trucks, can't. Plus, “what used to take several truck-loads and manpower to move now takes one bus,” says Casals.

Negotiating the purchase for an asset that's normally auctioned off for $15,000 to $25,000 required several meetings with school board staff. Cutler Bay administrators had to promise not to “flip” the buses and sell them to another entity for a profit.

Retrofitting the buses, on the other hand, was fairly easy, requiring a coat of paint and taking off bolts to remove seats. The paint is of the durable, mildew-resistant variety used on airplanes (Dupont Emron Paint), and was donated by the contracted painter, a citizen who wanted to do his part to help.

The Public Works Department houses and maintains the buses, and all public works, parks and recreation, and police department employees are certified to drive them during emergencies.

The town also installed emergency generator switches at nine high-traffic intersections that will allow signals to continue operating during power failures. Instead of two police officers directing traffic at each intersection, public works or other town employees transport emergency generators by bus to the intersections. Only one person is needed to monitor each generator. The town plans to add the electrical switches to nine more intersections next year.

The buses were retrofitted just in time for the height of the 2008 hurricane season, which began in June and ends next month. As of press time, Cutler Bay has stayed out of the eye of the four-plus hurricanes that have threatened the Florida coast, which is fine with Casals.

He'd much rather see the buses used for special events such as parades and park district field trips, knowing his town is safe for another season.