Hurricane Irma Reroutes Rescue Teams Returning to Bay Area After Harvey Relief Efforts

Bay Area emergency and relief agencies are coping with one disaster while pivoting to get ready for the next. 

Instead of heading back to California as originally planned, local urban search and rescue teams aiding in Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts were rerouted — fire engines and all — to help respond to Irma, the most powerful hurricane in recorded history making a beeline for the United States. As of Thursday, Irma has claimed 6 lives as it barrels across the Caribbean, officials say.

Forty-seven members of the Bay Area-based California Task Force 4 returned home late Monday after working 14-hour days to ease some of the misery from Hurricane Harvey. In Texas, they helped rescue not only people, but also cattle, horses, dogs, cats and birds. 

The returning heroes were greeted with applause as they arrived at Oakland International Airport. However, the same people spent Wednesday packing extra medical bags, search equipment and other supplies, preparing for redeployment.

Eighty people from 18 agencies on Thursday boarded a flight out of Oakland, which took them first to Atlanta and then to a military base on the Florida-Georgia border where they'll await further instruction. The other members of California Task Force 4 are driving there.

"We have firefighters and civilians from all over the Bay Area who are responding tomorrow," said Robert Lipp, who coordinates the task force and is a battalion chief with the Oakland Fire Department. 

Wednesday was a "scramble," he admitted, because they were "trying to get everyone ready, make sure they're available to go, make sure they've had their training and all the certifications that are necessary."

Other Bay Area fire chiefs met in Foster City on Wednesday. Many are poised to be part of a second wave of reinforcements for Irma, while also tasked with keeping their hometowns safe.

The race is on against Hurricane Irma and Bay Area-based urban search and rescue teams, some of which were heading home from Texas, are pivoting from one disaster to another. Robert Handa reports.

"All of these agencies have to fill the seats in their fire trucks every day," said Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. That's no easy task because most teams also "have people out on wildland fires around the state," he noted.

Schapelhouman, who led a rescue effort in Florida — which is also bracing for Irma — during Hurricane Wilma in 2005, said crews will have to deal with climate and terrain that are vastly different than what they're used to.

"It being flat, there's a lot of different vectors there: you got alligators and snakes and things we don't typically think about over here to that extent," he said.

Hurricane Irma is persisting as a "potentially catastrophic" Category 5 storm, packing maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. It began its path of destruction in the Caribbean on Wednesday, whalloping houses, cars and boats, and unleashing widespread damage and flooding. 

PG&E is getting ready to send roughly 100 Bay Area-based employees — line workers, equipment operators and support staff — to Florida on Friday. The goal is to get the crews on the ground so they can help local power workers after Irma moves on, potentially leaves parts of the state in darkness. Rick Boone reports.

That's not the only help the Bay Area is offering.

Second Harvest Food bank in San Jose is part of a nationwide network getting ready to ship out more food to victims of Hurricane Harvey. The group is now preparing for Irma.

"There's only so much you can do for a disaster until you know where it's going to hit, so there's a bit of frustration where it's a waiting game,” said spokeswoman Diane Hayward.

PG&E is also getting ready to send roughly 100 employees — line workers, equipment operators and support staff — to Florida on Friday. The goal is to get the crews on the ground so they can help local power workers after Irma moves on, potentially leaves parts of the state in darkness.

Bay Area crews will carry some equipment, but plan to use Florida power trucks to do repair work.

Last year, PG&E's crews offered assistance after Hurricane Matthew barreled through Florida, wreaking havoc. 

NBC Bay Area's Rhea Mahbubani, Bob Redell and Rick Boone contributed to this report.

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