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First Responders Make Quick Pivot From Flood-Ravaged Texas To Florida


As hundreds of thousands of people evacuate from the path of Hurricane Irma, emergency responders, federal agencies and aid organizations are trying to prepare for what's expected to be a catastrophic storm. Many of them are just coming off an exhausting response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas. NPR's Nathan Rott reports that the back-to-back storms are stretching some resources thin.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Carlos Calvillo and more than 70 others from the Los Angeles Fire Department left sunny Southern California almost two weeks ago. They were deployed to Hurricane Harvey. And as part of FEMA's urban search and rescue task force, they spent most of those two weeks slogging through floodwaters in two rural southeast Texas towns, checking homes and rescuing stranded Texans.

CARLOS CALVILLO: We had over 50 people that we rescued.

ROTT: Calvillo is talking to us from a crowded bus, which is why he's a little hard to hear. That's because he and the men and women with him are gearing up to go do rescues again, this time on the East Coast for Hurricane Irma.

CALVILLO: Right now we're on our way to Georgia. As a whole, the team is in great spirits. I think it's really actually harder on the people at home when they were expecting us to be home.

ROTT: This story is playing out across the country as other emergency responders, specially trained infrastructure engineers, swift water rescuers, helicopter pilots, men and women from all over gear up for round two. The same is true of aid organizations and government agencies.

BEN BARRETT: This is what we trained for in the Coast Guard. You know, it's just kind of unfortunate that it's happening so quick, you know, one after the other. But our guys are ready to go.

ROTT: That was Ben Barrett, who is stationed at a midpoint of sorts between the two storms in Mobile, Ala. But for all of the optimism, there are concerns about just how much the federal government and FEMA in particular can handle. On top of the hurricanes, there are massive wildfires burning in the West. And officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned earlier this week that without new funds, they would run out of money at about the same time Hurricane Irma is forecast to make landfall in South Florida this weekend.

Congress has since approved a $15.25 billion disaster relief bill that will give the agency some breathing room, but that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what's going to be needed. And then there are questions about the on-the-ground resources as well.

JASON MCNAMARA: You know, there is no doubt in my mind that they are extremely stretched at this point in time. And they - you know, folks are starting to get tired.

ROTT: Jason McNamara is a former chief of staff for FEMA. He now is a director of Emergency Management at the nonprofit CNA. And he says that while FEMA has its hands full, it's helpful that these disasters are in different stages. For Irma, they need emergency personnel and commodities like food, water and cots. In Harvey...

MCNAMARA: Now you need case workers. You need folks to assess the infrastructure damage. You need engineers. You need cost estimators.

ROTT: Very different roles. Granted, those roles will be similar after Irma has passed. McNamara is confident, though, that FEMA and other federal agencies will be able to adequately respond without letting people fall through the cracks. But he also says this is a good reminder for the rest of America.

MCNAMARA: You know, we're never going to be able to build a government system that can handle all the potential disasters out there.

ROTT: That's why, he says, when things like this strike it's so important that states, communities, private businesses and citizens help pitch in, too. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.