Carlos Calvillo and more than 70 other members of the Los Angeles Fire Department were on their way home when they got the call.
After almost two exhausting weeks of water rescues, home inspections and cleanup in flood-ravaged southeastern Texas, as part of a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, they were getting deployed again — this time ahead of Hurricane Irma.
“We made it as far as El Paso before we got turned around,” says Calvillo, an assistant chief. “We’ve been traveling now quite a bit so that’s getting tiresome, but as a whole, the team is in great spirits. I think it’s really actually harder on the people at home.”
Calvillo’s team is one of the many storm-weary emergency response units that are bracing for the one-two punch of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
The back-to-back storms — coupled with massive wildfires in the West — are straining the nation’s first responders, government agencies and aid organizations that deal with natural disasters.
Earlier this week, there were even concerns that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would run out of money just as Irma is forecast to make landfall in South Florida. A $15 billion disaster relief package, passed Friday by Congress and signed by President Trump, has quelled those concerns.
But it does little for the on-the-ground crews that are still drying out from a massive response to Hurricane Harvey just a couple of weeks ago.
“We had deployed some of our teams and mobile kitchens from Florida [for Harvey],” says Lt. Col. Ron Busroe of the Salvation Army. “So a few days ago, we had to release them to try and get them back.”
Busroe, who has done disaster response work for 40 years, says he has never experienced something of this magnitude — potentially two Category 4 Hurricanes striking two major metropolitan areas within two weeks of each other. South Florida is projected to take a direct hit from Irma.
“Are we prepared? No,” he says. “None of us are prepared, but by God’s grace, we’re going to get in there and do the best we can in this terrible situation.”
After rescuing more than 11,000 people and more than 1,000 pets during Hurricane Harvey, the U.S. Coast Guard has redeployed resources, readying for the aftermath of Hurricane Irma on the U.S. mainland.
“This is what we train for in the Coast Guard,” says Ben Barrett, who is stationed in Mobile, Ala. “It’s just unfortunate that it’s happening so quick — you know, one after the other — but our guys are ready to go.”
The potential scale of the disasters has some worried that there won’t be enough resources to go around.
In Texas, where more than 500,000 people have registered for help from FEMA, there are concerns that Irma could hamper relief efforts. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters Thursday that federal officials assured him that Texas would continue to receive resources for Harvey recovery regardless of what might happen with Irma.
“There is no doubt in my mind that they are extremely stretched at this point in time and that folks are starting to get tired,” says Jason McNamara, former FEMA chief of staff.
He is confident, though, that people in Florida and Texas will get the help they need. It helps, he says, that the two events — at least for now — are in different stages of disaster, thus requiring different resources.
In Florida, emergency personnel and supplies like food, water and cots are immediately needed.
In Texas, where floodwaters have receded, McNamara says, “Now you need caseworkers, you need folks to assess the infrastructure damage, you need engineers, you need cost estimators.”
Those needs are going to remain for a long time, he says. And the number of people, places and towns that need them could significantly grow after Irma has run its course.
The federal government is committed to handling them, but McNamara says it’s important that people know there are going to be disasters that the government system just can’t handle.
“It’s not just about the federal government,” he says. “It’s all about the communities and the neighborhoods that are impacted and the states and the surrounding states. This is everybody’s responsibility as an American to pitch in.”