Washington-based disaster relief teams swarm to Harvey zone

The only FEMA urban search and rescue team located in Washington state has deployed to Texas in response to the Hurricane Harvey disaster,

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Volunteers from Western Washington are already on the ground in parts of Texas and Louisiana affected by Hurricane Harvey, and more are on the way.

Seventeen volunteers from Pierce County's Emergency Management Water Rescue Task Force is headed down to the disaster zone. The volunteers left Sunday, planning to drive 36 hours straight until they reach Beaumont, Texas.

How you can help Northwest Response: Texas Floods

They are taking four flat-bottom metal boats to navigate the floodwaters and two inflatable boats for swift-water rescues.

Twelve members of the Northwest Region of the American Red Cross went to Texas ahead of the storm and more left on Sunday. Their main mission is to help out with the shelters, which are expected to host some 30,000 people.


"That's where the greatest need is right now. Thousands of people have evacuated their homes," said Colin Downey, Red Cross Northwest Region Communications Director.

More than 1,800 people piled into 34 Red Cross and community shelters in Texas Saturday night, according to Downey. Those numbers are expected to grow in the coming days as flood warnings and potential flash floods persist.

"This is going to be going on not for days or weeks, but months," said Downey, referring to the need for shelters going forward.

The Red Cross says it has enough shelter supplies in Texas to support 28,000 people and supplies for an additional 22,000 people are being sent in now. The agency is also sending in ready-to-eat meals and has blood supplies on standby.

Poulsbo-based nonprofit disaster relief team Empact Northwest is headed to the Texas-Louisiana border to help smaller communities, which are sometimes overlooked in times of need.


“OK, let’s go. These people need help. I’m seeing the posts on Facebook. We’re all seeing the news. We all just want to get there,” Empact Northwest team leader Kelly Melton said.

Empact Northwest was formed in Poulsbo in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti, and is made up of firefighters, paramedics, and other volunteers. In the past seven years, the seven-person team has been deployed to the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Japan, among others, and helped thousands of people.

“The idea is we serve underserved communities on the outlying areas,” logistics coordinator Sil Wong-Underwood said.

This time, a local fire department invited the team to help, potentially with water rescues in small towns between Beaumont, Texas and Lake Charles, Louisiana.

“It's nice to know people we're targeting during this trip is going to those small communities and reaching out and getting resources that may not get that federal attention. That Houston is going to get,” Melton said.

Part of Washington Task Force 1, which is one of FEMA’s 28 urban search and rescue teams, deployed to Texas on Sunday.

"They'll be going out and finding survivors and rescuing as many people as they can," said Scott Heinz, deputy director of Pierce County Emergency Management.

The Pierce County-based team is the only FEMA urban search and rescue team in Washington state. The teams deploy during regional and national emergencies.

"This is a massive response. We've never seen this sort of response from the FEMA USAR system in the history of its existence," said Heinz.

The team is prepared to sustain themselves with supplies for 14 days. They're expected to arrive in Texas on Tuesday morning.

"Getting yourself mentally prepared to go where people are really struggling and need your help and it continues to rain, so those challenging circumstances of the weather, and what's in the water is truly heroic,” said Heinz. “These are 17 heroes who went out the door yesterday."

FEMA Administrator Brock Long warned Monday that citizens would need to step up and help out with the recovery effort, stressing that FEMA could not do the job alone.


KING 5's Ted Land, Jenna Hanchard, and LiLi Tan contributed to this report.

© 2017 KING-TV


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