Image: Hydra Terra amphibious bus
AP
A Hydra Terra amphibious bus sits on a highway in Bluffton, S.C., in this 2002 photo provided by its maker, Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International. This model is similar to those that were offered to aid search and rescue efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.
updated 8/25/2006 12:39:11 AM ET 2006-08-25T04:39:11

At 12:33 in the morning on Aug. 31, 2005, John Giljam, inventor and fabricator of the world's first unsinkable bus, tapped out an urgent e-mail to his customers across the United States.

Hurricane Katrina had erased much of Mississippi's coastline, a towering storm surge had overwhelmed the levees of New Orleans, and desperate city dwellers had scurried to their roofs to keep above the floodwaters.

A day earlier, Giljam had "placed a call to FEMA to see if our Hydra Terras can be used in time to save lives," he wrote. "I am awaiting a reply ... I ask you all to consider offering your vehicles and operators to save those in New Orleans if the call comes in that our machines could make a difference."

Surely, Giljam reasoned, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would recognize that his greatest invention, the amphibious Hydra Terra, was the answer to everyone's prayers.

Made for the long haul
His floating bus, 40 feet long by 8.5 feet wide, could not only do 75 mph on a highway, it did 7 knots on the water. As a tour bus, it accommodated 49 passengers and two crewmembers; as a rescue vehicle, it could haul as much as five tons of emergency supplies.

Giljam could rig the Hydra Terra to go a week without refueling by strapping extra drums of diesel to the deck, with no fear of listing or capsizing. The engine sat in the bottom and center of the vehicle for stability, and the aluminum-plated hull, filled with flotation foam, made the thing unsinkable.

Also, with a 300-horsepower engine and a propeller capable of generating as much thrust as a tugboat, the Hydra Terra could shove aside anything in its path: floating cars, trees, even trucks.

And it wouldn't cost taxpayers anything.

As he drifted off to sleep, Giljam envisioned Hydra Terras sailing about New Orleans, cruising up to people on rooftops and retrieving them like kids waiting at a bus stop — at a fraction of what it cost the U.S. Coast Guard to fly helicopter sorties.

The thought made him smile.

Ready to roll
The first reply came that same morning, at 7:48 a.m. — an electronic missive from Hubert Baxley, a customer and water-tour operator in Myrtle Beach, S.C., who wrote, "We will be on standby and ready to help out."

Pledges of assistance soon arrived from other Hydra Terra owners as far-flung as Providence, R.I., Boston, San Diego, Miami, Albany, N.Y., Santa Barbara, Calif., and Ponderay, Idaho.

Robert Fox, a lake-tour operator in Ponderay, had even assembled a crew of volunteers and was prepping for the haul to New Orleans.

"The Delirious Duck," Fox asserted boldly, "is available."

There was but one vexing circumstance: Neither Giljam, nor his wife, Julie, who'd been feverishly working the phones, had made contact with anyone in the rescue business, let alone convince them that the Hydra Terra was the way to go.

‘We can't authorize that’
Their misfortune began with an unattended call to the sheriff's office in New Orleans. (Understandably, the sheriffs had already bailed.) Undeterred, they rang FEMA's general number in Washington, D.C. — and were promptly referred to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Emergency Preparedness.

That turned out to be a dead end, too. "I'm sorry, we can't authorize that," the attendant told them. "Try our field office in Louisiana."

The field officer in Baton Rouge, a bit harried, suggested they contact logistics at the Emergency Management Services office. Why? "We're not in a position to authorize this."

Other Samaritans might have quit right there; Giljam, who'd been told countless times that he'd never get a bus to float, was just getting started.

Naturally, with New Orleans in chaos, it took time to get Emergency Management Services on the line. Once Giljam heard "Hello?" he launched into his pitch for his floating bus.

After a pause, the voice said, "Sir?"

"Yes?"

"No one here can authorize that."

Thanks but no thanks
However, the attendant added, perhaps stirred by Giljam's passion, proper authorization might be obtainable from Louisiana's Fish & Wildlife Commission, which, at that moment, was in charge of search and rescue.

The chief wasn't available, but Giljam did his best to get the officer on the phone to accept the services of his volunteer armada.

Thanks but no thanks, a gruff but kindly voice said. "We can't get authorization for something like that." Had they tried the Army Corps of Engineers?

Who better than an engineer — in fact, a whole army of them — to grasp the concept?

The Army Corps spokesman was cordial, patient, as Giljam spoke of his 10-ton, floating bus and how it might retrieve survivors from the Superdome and ferry them to safety.

There was a now-familiar pause.

"I'm afraid authorization will be a problem."

Giljam hung up and turned to his wife.

"What else can we do?"

Julie shrugged.

A flood of phone calls
If nothing else, John Giljam is a born problem solver.

As a child growing up on his family's farm in upstate New York, he and his father, a welder, would design, then build sulfuric acid tankers for Halliburton and custom-made fire trucks for the local rescue squad.

He'd never been an engineer, never went to college. And yet, in 1999, at the age of 39, he had designed, patented and crafted, as far as anyone knew, the nation's only unsinkable motorcoach.

But this time, he was stumped.

For several days, he and his wife lobbied by telephone, fax and e-mail to get a Katrina rescue agency — ANY agency — to recognize the utility of their amphibious motorcoach.

Nobody saw it.

Nobody, that is, but ordinary citizens who had remembered seeing Giljam's amphibious bus on TV programs such as "Good Morning America." One e-mail (with a subject line that queried, "Can You Loan One Of These To The Katrina Rescue Efforts?") implored:

"If your company could afford to loan one of these things to the rescue efforts, imagine what could be done ... Just a thought from a citizen who hopes to afford one."

In the end, the Giljams' failure to get any agency interested in the Hydra Terra during Katrina may be best explained by the fact that rescuers were drowning in a flood of phone calls, and simply did not have time to pay close attention to each one.

"We were getting thousands of phone calls a day and we were in the process of saving lives," Mark Smith, a public information officer at the governor's office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge, said recently.

Still waiting on an answer
Would authorities in Louisiana be interested today in studying Giljam's amphibious bus?

"If he's got something that works, we'd love to take a look," Smith said, adding a caveat: The Hydra Terra "would have to be not only good on land and water, but in really, really deep mud as well."

On March 22, the Giljams mailed the New Orleans Fire Department a prospectus for the Hydra Terra, a basic version of which retails at about $225,000. On May 10, they sent the specifications to the police department of Gulfport, Miss., then to FEMA.

The Giljams are still waiting for a response.

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