COLUMBIA — The operation that sent hundreds of Greenville County school buses to the North Charleston Coliseum to evacuate people from Hurricane Matthew but wound up only taking residents from a nursing home cost the state almost $1 million, according to estimates provided to The Greenville News by the state Department of Education.
The total includes the cost of drivers and bus aides, fuel, meals and hotels for personnel from Greenville, Lexington and Richland school districts, as well as the cost of an incident management team from the state Forestry Commission.
The plan had been to send hundreds of buses to North Charleston for a one-day operation to cart as many as 7,500 of those who wanted to evacuate to Upstate shelters on the Wednesday before the hurricane's arrival that Saturday.
But because of a number of factors, including a desire by many Charleston-area residents not to leave and a rule that local shelters had to be at least half full before evacuees could be bussed to Greenville, no individual evacuees ever boarded the buses, which sat idle for nearly two days.
About 24 Greenville buses were used eventually to evacuate residents of a nursing home but the majority of buses returned to their school systems without carrying evacuees.
"When local requests for assistance come in, as the state prepares for a storm, we listen to the needs of local officials," said Chaney Adams, press secretary for Gov. Nikki Haley. "In the aftermath of a storm, state officials always consider what worked and what didn't, and that informs what can be handled better during the next state of emergency."
The operation used about 300 buses, at least 200 of them from Greenville County, which supplied about 300 drivers, bus aides and maintenance personnel, officials said. The Greenville buses were escorted to North Charleston by Greenville County deputies.
Ryan Brown, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said using school buses for a hurricane coastal evacuation is part of the state emergency plan, since the buses are owned by the state.
He said at the time the evacuation plan was crafted, Matthew had just torn through Haiti and was a strong Category 4 storm.
"At the time that was decided, we were planning for the worst," he said. "It would have been a much worse situation had we been hit with a massive hurricane and not had enough buses there. I think being overly prepared was the right decision and something we supported."
State Department of Education officials estimate that $954,779 was spent on the school bus evacuation operation. That includes driver compensation, fuel, state and local area staff time, travel expenses, and other costs, said Ryan.
He said the agency has not yet received itemized claims from the school districts. Brown said officials have not calculated any indirect costs, such as students missing school in Greenville County from the lack of buses.
The State Forestry Commission estimates it spent about $34,256 for its incident management team to work at the coliseum, of which $21,000 was above the normal costs of staff working at the agency, a spokesman said. He said 19 employees worked in the operation.
National Guard personnel also were at the coliseum site to help check in evacuees. Their costs were not included in the estimates.
Most of the costs are expected to eventually be covered by the federal government.
Over the two days, dozens of residents appeared at the coliseum hoping to be bused to Greenville County shelters but were sent to local shelters instead. Some of those told The News then that they were frustrated at not being able to leave the Lowcountry before the hurricane hit.
Mike Bozzo, incident commander for the state Forestry Commission’s incident management team at the coliseum, said at the time local shelters were less than 10 percent full.
“The weather doesn’t seem threatening so people are not seeing the need to evacuate,” he said then. “A lot of people have evacuated on their own as the interstates showed the last couple of days.”
Greenville bus drivers who could not stay more than a day were given the option of leaving that Wednesday evening and some did. But most stayed.
"In a response of this magnitude, state leaders must plan for the worst, hope for the best, and adjust the plan as needed," said Elizabeth Brotherton, a spokeswoman for the Greenville County Schools. "The fact that our drivers’ mission was altered reflected changes in our state’s response based on the hurricane’s track, so we are not at all disappointed that shelters in Charleston were able to open and meet most of the area’s evacuation needs locally."
She said while it was inconvenient that drivers expected to return home Wednesday afternoon and instead were asked to stay for an undetermined period of time, the district was kept informed of developments and were able to swap out personnel.
"Drivers who could not stay because of other commitments were able to return to Greenville," she said. "Our bus drivers voluntarily responded to a call for help when our state’s citizens were under threat. We are extremely proud of their selfless action and the small role we played in the state’s emergency response."