As Irma aims for Florida, NJ has 4,000 volunteers ready to help
TRENTON — New Jersey is gearing up to assist potential victims of a hurricane for the second time in three weeks.
The National Hurricane Center said it's still too early to specify the location and magnitude of Hurricane Irma's impact on Florida but planning for relief efforts are already underway. Irma is the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever, according to the NHC, with 185 mph winds churning its way toward possible landfall in South Florida on Sunday.
Gov. Chris Christie deployed the New Jersey Army National Guard 253rd Transportation Company based in Cape May and will arrive at Camp Blanding in central Florida by Friday. The company is equipped with high wheeled vehicles.
"We are likely sending in excess of 100 soldiers to participate in this emergency response and rescue mission for Hurricane Irma victims in Florida, and beyond the numbers, these are highly experienced and trained men and women who served on the front lines during Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy,"Christie said in a statement. "Our thoughts, prayers and necessary available resources are with all of those in Florida who are bracing for impact."
The Red Cross New Jersey chapter has sent nine volunteers to stage in northeast Florida. Two volunteers left for Florida on Wednesday with an emergency relief vehicle.
"This was actually slated to go to Texas but it had issues with the air conditioning so we had that fixed and now it's headed for Florida," Red Cross NJ spokeswoman Diane Concannon said.
Ana Montero, the American Red Cross' New Jersey CEO, is assisting with relief efforts in Puerto Rico where Irma is expected to hit Wednesday.
Concannon said despite already sending 58 volunteers to Texas, the Red Cross has a deep roster of volunteers in New Jersey. Over 4,000 volunteers are available to help with a variety of services both in and out of the state.
"This is how we operate so that when these disasters do occur we can send our resources. But we always keep enough folks operating here for home fire response or should anything occur here," Concannon said.
Eighty members from the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management's Task Force 1 returned home to the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst from deployment to Texas on Wednesday and were ready to send out another group.
"Everybody came home safe with no medical issues," NJ OEM spokeswoman Laura Connolly said.
Nine FEMA urban search-and-rescue teams have already been activated for possible deployment to Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The same team sent to Georgia to assist with Matthew in 2016 is on standby, according to Connolly.
The team that just returned from Texas is one of three; one team always remains in New Jersey.
"We're just watching Irma very intently and on standby to receive the call for the next activation. It all depends on the track of the storm," Connolly said.
St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center has already made arrangements to accept dogs from coastal Florida shelters before the storm arrives. Another flight of dogs from Texas shelters is expected to arrive in Morristown on Thursday to be given to other shelters for adoption, including the Monmouth County SPCA.
"There is such tremendous outpouring of caring and support by the public and other groups from across New Jersey," St. Hubert's Executive Director Heather Cammisa said.
She said shelters in Burlington, Gloucester and Ocean counties have also offered to take shelter dogs.
Gabriel Gall, of Ewing, was in Florida to visit family near Ft. Lauderdale and wound up helping them prepare their homes. While panic has not set in, Gall said the tension is in the air.
"I don't think the panic set in yet. Yesterday at Publix (their local grocer) reminded me of how we handle blizzards: lack of a certain items (in this case its water) and gas lines."
Gall said his flight from Ft. Lauderdale to Trenton was "fully packed."
Connolly stressed that September is National Preparedness Month and that New Jersey can learn some lessons from what the Task Force saw in Texas.
"A lot of their rescues were for pets. Pets are part of your family and you need to make sure they're included in your emergency plan. Are they included in your evacuation plan? Do you have provisions for them in your emergency kit and Go Bag?" Connolly said.
The Task Force was involved with the rescue of both people and pets in Wharton County, Texas, and they saw a lot of pets left behind.
She said that many people did not have refilled prescriptions in their emergency kits.
"The fortunate thing is that they did those wide area searches and they did not come upon anyone who was deceased ... people did heed evacuation orders or self-evacuate " Connolly said.
Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com.
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