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Maria prompts deployment of New York Task Force 1 to Puerto Rico

Members of Urban Search and Rescue New York

Members of Urban Search and Rescue New York Task Force 1 prepare to deploy to Puerto Rico in response to Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2017. Photo Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

The city is deploying dozens of NYPD, FDNY and Office of Emergency Management officials to Puerto Rico following back-to-back hurricanes that ravaged the island, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

"Our hearts, our prayers are with Puerto Rico," de Blasio said at a City Hall news conference where he was joined by a number of elected officials, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Rep. Nydia Velasquez and Rep. Adriano Espaillat.

Twenty-seven members of the Urban Search and Rescue New York Task Force 1 were to be deployed Thursday, and about 10 emergency management officials will be sent soon after, the mayor said. They will join nine members of their team who stayed Puerto Rico following the devastation of Irma.

“We don’t know [when] the ultimate end of the season is going to be,” Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Esposito said on Wednesday. “As of now, we’ve been going from disaster to disaster . . . We’ve been going from one hurricane to the next.”

Before setting off for Puerto Rico, the task force was scheduled to stop at Steward International Airport in Newburgh, where they will pack a military plane with equipment, including tractor trailers, chainsaws, generators, rescue boats, wetsuits, tents, cots and food.

Velazquez said Puerto Rico's recovery and rebuilding efforts in the wake of Irma and Maria will likely cost $10 billion, and she urged the federal government to provide funding to the U.S. territory that was already grappling with a fiscal crisis before the storms hit.

"This is an unprecedented event that requires a monumental response," Velazquez said.
Mark-Viverito, the first Puerto Rican to hold citywide office, choked up as she spoke about the "long term" recovery effort ahead.

"To say that this is a trying time is an understatement," Mark-Viverito said Thursday.

She noted that the island remains largely without power, which could lead to "dire consequences" given all the hospitals and health care facilities in need of an ongoing power supply. 

This is the third time the task force has deployed this hurricane season: Members went to Texas to help after Harvey and lent their services to victims of Irma as well. The group is part of a FEMA-funded initiative and one of 28 teams around the country, Esposito said.

“You can rest assured that when people need help, the members of the FDNY and the members of the NYPD are there to help anybody, wherever they might be,” said James Leonard, the FDNY’s chief of department. “We sent our most highly trained, highly motivated police officers and firefighters down there.”
Members of the task force are trained in handling building collapses, water rescues and hazmat situations. The group also includes two paramedics, a doctor, 10 members of the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit, and two members of the ESU’s K-9 unit, including their dogs.

Capt. Liam Flaherty, who works for an FDNY rescue company and is heading to Puerto Rico as part of the team, said it means a lot to be helping.

“For the New York team this is pretty personal. There’s a huge Puerto Rican community in New York,” he said. “I’m getting texts and messages from friends to check addresses and check family.”

He said the group receives “thousands of hours” of training “and we do it every day, day-to-day here in NYC. So, it’s something that we’re prepared to do and more than willing to go down to help the citizens of Puerto Rico."

“This is the third deployment in as many weeks. It’s unprecedented, we’ve never had that,” Flaherty added. “They just called last night and they said let’s go. Just ramp up, throw some stuff in a bag and you’re off.”

Members of he city’s Puerto Rican community are anxiously waiting for any word from their friends and family in the wake of Maria's devastation. Families in the city said they have felt as much in the dark as their relatives back home, as the lack of electricity on the island has made it difficult to know the status of their loved ones.

“This is obviously very personal for me,” Mark-Viverito said on Wednesday, noting that she has family in Puerto Rico. “The level of devastation ... it’s going to ... change the whole look and face of what Puerto Rico was before this storm happened.”

Vanessa Ortiz, an actor and lifelong Washington Heights resident, said her mother was last in contact with five relatives in the southern city of Guayama Tuesday afternoon, but lost contact that night.

The area was hit with massive flooding over the past two days.

“The not knowing is what is driving everyone crazy,” she said.

Stephanie Ferrer, 27, a graphic designer, moved from the island to Astoria four years ago and was trying to contact her mother, sister and other relatives who are still there. She has found some help through fellow expats in the city, who have been sharing news and updates in their efforts to reach home through Facebook.

“We’re all asking each other, ‘Have you heard anything? Have you heard anything?’” she said.

De Blasio said the city will soon set up collection sites in all five boroughs for donations of diapers, baby food, batteries and first-aid kits.

The city will also coordinate a volunteer initiative that will allow city employees to take unpaid leave to volunteer with recovery efforts.


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