Search and Rescue Teams, Dogs and Cats Travel to Bay Area From Hurricane-Stricken Florida and Texas

Members of a Peninsula urban search and rescue team returned to their Menlo Park base today after journeying to Florida to help residents facing Hurricane Irma, fire officials said.

California Task Force 3 drove about 5,000 miles back and forth across the U.S. to Elgin Air Force Base in Florida with 11 vehicles, seven trailers and more than 60,000 pounds of search and rescue equipment.

The unit mobilized a new group of members to respond to Florida and Hurricane Irma 30 minutes after the water rescue team returned from Texas and Hurricane Harvey, Menlo Park Fire Protection District Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.

"We've never had such a short turnaround before to get one group back in and deploy another," Menlo Park Fire Protection District Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said in a statement.

Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys and again on Florida's west coast and did little damage in the northern area of Florida where the team was stationed. The team's specialized services weren't needed, fire officials said. 

Task Force 3 was one of two search and rescue teams from the San Francisco Bay Area, one of four from California and one of 14 from the nation deployed to Florida to respond to Hurricane Irma.

A day prior, the East Bay-based California Task Force 4 touched down in Oakland International Airport. The 50 members were greeted with an emotional hero's welcome. 

Harvey and Irma created a grueling pair of assignments for the unit, but that's what they signed up for, according to Oakland Fire Department Battalion Chief Robert Lipp. 

In Texas, the team spent days on boats, going from home to home, looking for people who needed to be rescued amid torrential rain and widespread flooding. 

Then came Irma. Some California Task Force 3 members who were driving back from Texas were redirected to Florida, while others who had flown back to the Bay Area, were back in the air within 48 hours of getting home.

The unit spent four days in the Florida Keys and was among the first urban search and rescue teams to start looking for residents who stayed behind, determined to ride out the deadly hurricane.

"Everyone is just really proud and happy not only to have gone, but also now to be home and be able to share our stories and be able to learn from the experience of having been down there so that we’re even better able to protect our own communities here," Lipp said.

Another 26 members are driving Task Force 3's equipment back to the Bay Area and are expected to be here by Wednesday or Thursday. 

Meanwhile, humans are not the only ones returning from sodden Texas and Florida. 

A coalition of local rescue groups — including Mad Dog Rescue, Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch, the Milo Foundation, San Francisco SPCA and Muttville Senior Dog Rescue — on Sunday brought 47 dogs and 26 cats from Houston to the Bay Area. 

“We have an incredible disaster relief team who have been deployed multiple times since the hurricane hit helping with the emergency evacuation of pets,” Ryan Darfler of Mad Dog Rescue said in a statement. “We will continue to do so until every animal is safe.”

Before flying to Hayward in style — aboard a private plane donated by philanthropists — the animals were removed from Texas shelters so hundreds of other displaced pets could be taken care of. All of them have been vaccinated and checked for medical issues, officials said.

The goal now is to "help find these animals good homes to go to," said Monica Stevens, co-founder of the Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch. 

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