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Feds on standby to swoop in from land and sea with Irma relief

Traffic on I-75 North fleeing Hurricane Irma backs up moving at a crawl toward Atlanta while power trucks head south toward the Georgia coast in preparation for the storm on Friday, September 8, 2017, in Griffin.

CURTIS COMPTON/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION/TNS

By CAROL ROSENBERG | Miami Herald | Published: September 9, 2017

MIAMI — FEMA has around 5 million meals and 5 million liters of water with other relief supplies packed inside trucks at an air base in Alabama. It has mobilized eight sophisticated search-and-rescue teams to stand by in Georgia and by the eve of the arrival of Hurricane Irma on Friday, moved about 300 extra federal employees into Florida.

And the top FEMA official on the ground, Gracia Szczech (pronounced Check), arrived from her office in Atlanta days ago to participate in state planning at the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee.

For those still shuddering from memories of the long, lonely wait before federal help arrived 25 years ago after Hurricane Andrew, FEMA officials have added a word to their talking points intended to reassure: seamless.

Or as FEMA spokeswoman Mary Hudak put it: “We’re embedded at the state EOC — elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder — to make sure there is close and clear communication on any requirement that might come to us from the state.”

The pace and progress of delivery will be done in concert with Florida state officials, who will take the lead on recovery efforts. For example, a mini armada of Navy ships will be in the region, but the Marines and soldiers on standby for humanitarian relief work won’t set foot on Florida soil without a formal request from Gov. Rick Scott.

Meantime, the federal government has an array of other human and tangible assets on standby beyond the impact zone to move in, at the governor’s request, as people emerge from their shelters to see what havoc Irma’s winds have wrought.

“It’s not like they wait for the blue sky to come back,” said FEMA external affairs director Susan Phalen, adding the federal workers can move “while the winds are still blowing, but have died down.”

Downed traffic lights, and vehicle snarls?

The Pentagon announced Thursday that the Florida National Guard has 8,052 troops available to the state “to support state search and rescue and evacuation operations.”

Imploded buildings?

FEMA has activated eight, up-to 70-member National Urban Search & Rescue teams from California, Arizona, Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia, and mobilized them to Georgia to move in when help is needed. They’re equipped with convoy vehicles and are trained to do surveillance and if need be search damaged and collapsed structures, provide emergency medical care to entrapped survivors and operate in a “water environment,” according to a FEMA fact sheet.

Contaminated water?

The Navy is sending an aircraft carrier, destroyer and two amphibious assault ships to the region with more than two dozen helicopters. The mini-armada also includes about 300 Marines and sailors who can go ashore to provide security and move supplies, including clean water. At the same time the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln can make, purify and transport vast amounts of water off the ship.

Fear of flooding?

The Pentagon says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is “closely monitoring the levels of Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding Herbert Hoover Dike.” Meantime, Scott’s office said the Florida Guard has 1,000 high water vehicles, 13 helicopters, 17 boats and more than 700 generators ready to go.

Health crisis?

The Department of Health and Human Services has assembled three 36-member Disaster Medical Assistance Teams in Atlanta, with an incident response coordination team just north of the Florida border. These are civilian doctors, nurses and EMTs drawn from a force of 5,500 medical professionals across the country who do two weeks on call, much like the National Guard. They can do emergency medical care but also move into a shelter to handle chronic care conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. The Navy ships, meantime, can also offer medical care, if needed.

Rotted or unsafe food after an extensive power outage?

FEMA says it has water, generators, cots, blankets, meals, baby formula and other emergency supplies already packed into trucks that are ready to roll out of the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. More were being staged Friday farther north, at Fort Bragg, N.C., and in Atlanta — to move into the state, if needed, to replace Florida supplies stacked up in Orlando warehouses.

FEMA employees moved into Tallahassee to follow the governor’s lead, and had supplies pre-positioned in the region even before the state’s cascading evacuation orders. Those started earlier in the week with a call to flee Key West, which even the U.S. Coast Guard heeded.

“If the Coast Guard is evacuating, and that’s what they do for a living — guard the coast — pay attention, people,” said Phalen.

Down in the Keys, the Salvation Army evacuated too, but has a plan to airlift equipment and meals after the storm if bridges are washed out or the island chain is otherwise cut off. One of its top jobs is to assist first responders, said Jessica Geib, liaison for the Salvation Army’s Florida division. “We’re looking at all resources being cut off — electricity, water, everything,” Geib said.

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©2017 Miami Herald
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