Mass. rescue team gears up to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Twenty-seven members of the Task Force 1 FEMA Urban Response Team have been called to go to Puerto Rico and help rescue and recovery efforts

By Dustin Luca
The Salem News

BEVERLY, Mass. —The call came, but the plane isn't leaving yet.

Twenty-seven members of the Beverly-based Massachusetts Task Force 1 FEMA Urban Response Team have been called to go to Puerto Rico and help rescue and recovery efforts in the island nation.

After already reeling from Hurricane Irma a few weeks ago, Puerto Rico was decimated by Hurricane Maria this past week, making national headlines.

When they eventually arrive, the 27 members will join six others who were already stationed there to help with Irma response but told to stay in anticipation of Maria making landfall, according to team spokesman Tom Gatzunis.

"We have 27 people over at Westover Air Force Base (in Chicopee), and they're staged and waiting for a military transport to San Juan," Gatzunis said. "Really, it's waiting for the runway down in Puerto Rico."

That's because, right now, there isn't a clear runway to land on.

The task force is shipping a type four mission-ready package to Puerto Rico, which includes a task force leader, safety officer, two rescue squads—each with their own rescue specialists, hazmat specialist and medical specialist—and further technical and communication specialists.

Overall, Task Force 1 contains 240 members. The 27 people going down come from all over New England, according to Gatzunis.

They'll be "doing search and rescue of the collapsed buildings," he said.

"One of our specialties is heavy search and rescue and confined spaces," Gatzunis said. "We train thousands of hours for all different scenarios. We have a rubble pile at our cache in Beverly. We create confined spaces and have confined space props and create mock disaster scenarios, practice breaking and breaching as well as secure lifting, structure shoring, rope rescue, basically all of the scenarios.

Puerto Rico had its fair share of time in the spotlight this week in the wake of Hurricane Maria. By mid-week, headlines conveyed the horror facing United States' unofficial 51st state: power outages blanketing the entire country, crippled infrastructure and more.

Five members of Task Force 1 actually saw the storm first-hand after "demobilization orders" sending them home were recently pulled back, according to Gatzunis.

"They're all safe. They're all fine, all in good spirits," Gatzunis said. "The hotel they were in sustained water damage, some flooding. Some windows and doors were blown in by the hurricane."

But they have on-site power generation and satellite-provided phone and Internet access.

"We're even getting some emails from them," Gatzunis said.

Task Force 1 will go down not knowing when they'll return, but their deployment won't run for too long, according to Gatzunis.

"There's a total of 28 search-and-rescue teams across the country," Gatzunis said. "We'll certainly be there for as long as requested. If it appears it's going to be a prolonged duration, then the task forces will get rotated out and new task forces will go in."

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