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School buses ‘ready to roll’ — if fuel and fixes can be found

On the waterfront, private bus operators dry out saltwater-soaked engines and struggle to reach their own diesel supplies

On Wednesday workers at a Bergen Beach, Brooklyn, depot for Atlantic Express dry off engines soaked in Sandy’s sea surge. Photo: Alyssa Katz

Yesterday Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott shared plans to reopen most city schools on Monday, and said that 96 percent of buses to transport children were “ready to roll.”

Managers at the private companies the city relies on to provide bus service — many located at the water’s edge in Brooklyn and Queens — scrambled this week to make good on the chancellor’s statement.

At Boro Wide Buses on Coffey Street in flood-hit Red Hook, Brooklyn, about 25 of the 500 buses parked near the waterfront have engines that now won’t start. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the rest will make it to school on Monday.

“Once they start driving, who knows, ’cause that salt water kills everything,” said General Manager Lenny D’Amico.

What’s more, D’Amico’s crews have no idea how much fuel they actually have to power the buses, because Red Hook still lacks electricity and they can’t read tank meters.

Last night Carolyn Daly, spokesperson for the Department of Education’s largest school bus contractor, Atlantic Express, said the company is still scouring the region for available vehicles to get on the road Monday. It operates about one in four of the city’s nearly 6,900 school bus routes.

Flooding at the company’s main office, on the north shore of Staten Island, is making the task of getting the buses back online even more challenging.

“The entire headquarters is underwater,” Daly said.

The company’s three largest parking lots in the city were located near the shore in flooded Rockaways, Coney Island and Staten Island.

Prior to the storm, staff brought its specially equipped buses for the disabled to higher ground, and rolled remaining vehicles away from water’s edge – the latter to little avail. Rising waters inundated the low-lying lots, sparking engine fires in some vehicles and in one case leaving a 30-foot boat perched precariously against a bus.

The company’s Long Island fleets suffered hits, too.

“We’re going to have to borrow from other areas,” said Ryan. “We’re going to have as many of the vehicles as we can for Monday morning.”

The biggest challenge, Daly said, remains fuel. Atlantic Express keeps its supplies in underground tanks on the Brooklyn and Staten Island waterfronts — tanks that have now been contaminated by seawater. The company is now bringing in crews from Pennsylvania to pump out the flooded Staten Island station and attempt to salvage the fuel.

The Bloomberg administration said Thursday night it has made special arrangements with a supplier to fuel emergency vehicles. The Department of Education was not available to respond today about its own provisions to fill the tanks of the private bus fleets it uses to transport some 600,000 students.

Even with its headquarters deluged, Atlantic Express got its other bus services back on the road quickly. On Tuesday, more than 400 buses on its Staten Island express service ran their routes through the flooded borough, a day before the MTA had its own fleet back online.

And Daly said the company would do everything in its power to prepare for next week. Holed up in a dark Manhattan hotel room, she hadn’t yet heard that Walcott had announced a Monday opening.

“If schools start,” she said, “we’re going to get there safely.”

Additional reporting by Gianna Palmer.