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Hurricane Irma mid-day on September 6, 2017 off the east coast of Puerto Rico. Satellite Image by NOAA GOES-16.

Hurricane Irma: How we are responding

Hurricane Irma, the second most powerful Atlantic basin hurricane in recorded history, has killed at least nine people in the Caribbean region, and is projected to be heading for Florida and the southeastern United States soon.

“Our priority is the safety of our employees, making sure they are safe and then back to work as soon as personal priorities are taken care of,” said David Viker, acting deputy regional director of the Service’s Southeast Region, which is directly in Irma’s path.

Once they are back to work, it will be time to help their communities recover.

“Our staff live and work in these communities,” he added. “They’re Little League coaches and school room moms and dads, they care about the community. When folks approach or we see the need, we respond as members of the community. We want to help our neighbors.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been tested before in major disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and its employees learned a great deal from those challenges about how to respond. Even before Irma caused any damage, the Service was planning how it will respond and assist where the need is greatest.

In 2005, a total of 675 Service employees were deployed in response to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. We opened a camp at the Southeast Louisiana National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Lacombe, Louisiana, which provided shelter for local emergency workers, FEMA staff and International Red Cross teams. Service personnel provided food for 1,400 people, including patients at a local hospital; and deployed boat teams to support local search and rescue operations.

“Service crews cleared more than 300 driveways, over 14 miles of roads, 10 miles of fire breaks, and four major parking lots, including the Louisiana Heart Hospital, Lake Castle School and the local Post Office,” H. Dale Hall, who was then director of the Service, testified to Congress. “Service personnel assisted numerous citizens, including clearing a driveway so that an ambulance could transport a patient home from the hospital,” he added.

When it was over, Charles Flynn, fire chief of St. Tammany Parish Fire District 3, said, “The support that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided to Lacombe has been outstanding. I want to thank all of you for the great help from feeding us to clearing our roads. It has been a blessing to have you here.”

Looking ahead to Irma, the Service has been emphasizing “safety first” to the more than 500 employees who normally work in the projected path, said Viker.

Service personnel took shelter in Puerto Rico, with some doing extra duty watching over rare Puerto Rican parrots that had been moved into an indoor aviary. Damage in Puerto Rico was less than initially feared. National wildlife refuges and field offices in Florida are shutting down, and staffers evacuating.

After the storm has passed through an area, the Service will send in a Special Operations Response Team (SORT), made up of refuge law enforcement personnel, to begin rescue efforts and assess initial damages. Following on the heels of the SORT team, an Incident Command Team will likely arrive on the scene.

The Incident Command System was developed in the ‘70s to be a flexible system that could respond to a variety of complicated events, especially disasters such as large wildfires and hurricanes. It is a system in which multiple federal, state and local agencies operate in a single chain of command with shared goals and understanding.

Staffers from the Service and other agencies under Incident Command will make rescue operations for communities their first priority, as we did in Katrina and other disasters. Another priority will be securing and repairing the infrastructure of the refuge system.

Since the Service is charged with maintaining wildlife refuges and helping to preserve endangered, threatened and at-risk species, we will also start assessing how Irma affected wildlife populations, such as the Key deer, the Florida panther, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and the Puerto Rican parrot.

Stay up to date with the Southeast Region and Hurricane Irma.

Contact

Phil Kloer, 404-679-7299
Phillip_Kloer@fws.gov

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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