'Our resources are stretched right now': Maryland agencies prepare to help with back-to-back hurricanes

After helping scores of victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, a team of Maryland first responders was on its way home this week when members got a call from the Federal Emergency Management Agency just as they crossed into Virginia.

The agency wanted to know “where they were, if they were available and whether they were willing to deploy to support Hurricane Irma activities,” said Montgomery County Fire Chief Scott Goldstein.

Four members of Maryland Task Force 1, an urban search-and-rescue team based in Montgomery County, are now stationed in Georgia, prepping to launch into action should Irma make landfall this weekend as forecasters predict. Other members of the team “remain available and ready if called upon by FEMA,” Goldstein said. “They are energetic and ready to continue the mission they started in Texas.”

Responders and relief agencies in Maryland and across the nation are preparing for a second massive hurricane to barrel into the continental United States in less than three weeks.

“Our resources are stretched right now,” said Greater Chesapeake Region Red Cross CEO Scott Salemme. “Irma is going to further stretch those resources.”

Irma’s outer bands are expected to reach Florida by early Saturday. While the monster storm’s path remains uncertain, a hurricane warning is in effect across the southern third of Florida.

Maryland's local Red Cross chapter anticipates it will issue a call for additional volunteers next week once the extent of Irma’s damage is more clear.

“We know we have a resilient community, and if we go out to the community with a plea for volunteers, I know folks will step up,” said Salemme.

Salemme, of Baltimore, spent eight days in Port Arthur, Texas, helping with Harvey relief. He watched as rain poured and rooftops disappeared under the water. Though deployments are usually two weeks, his assignment was cut short so he could return to the regional headquarters to plan for Irma.

There are about 200 Red Cross volunteers in this region that can be deployed for these types of disasters.

There are still about 130 of those volunteers in Texas, but their 14-day deployments will soon come to an end. The organization typically wants volunteers to have downtime between assignments, Salemme said, and after two weeks of often 18-hour days, they will need time to recover.

Still, he said, a good many will be asked to assist Irma victims, and several will likely go to Florida after leaving Texas.

“When you have a storm the size of Harvey, although it’s a two-week deployment, the operation doesn’t end after two weeks,” Salemme said. “We have to make sure we have another round going back to Houston, and we have Irma on top of that.”

A group of 12 volunteers from the Salvation Army of Central Maryland arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Thursday and will stay for two weeks. One of them, Baltimore resident Janeen Johnally, is already thinking about Irma’s impact on Florida, where she grew up.

The two disasters coming so close together, “does make it difficult” for relief agencies, Johnally said.

“We’re still trying to raise awareness and money for Harvey, and that might get forgotten with Irma about to approach Florida,” she said. “Our strategy is to focus on both.”

Tom Bossert, President Donald Trump's homeland security adviser, said the federal government won't forget Harvey's victims as attention shifts toward the threat from Irma.

Federal officials say those responsible for responding to large-scale public emergencies meet regularly to conduct drills and update plans covering numerous worst-case scenarios. That includes what to do if two massive hurricanes strike the U.S. mainland within days, 1,000 miles apart.

Trump on Friday signed a $15.3 billion disaster aid package in the aftermath of Harvey. The measure will replenish depleted emergency accounts.

As of Wednesday, more than 100 FEMA personnel have already been deployed to Florida, where they will coordinate with the state's emergency management officials. FEMA regional assistance teams also were sent to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Four Baltimore County Fire Department personnel have been sent to Alabama to assist with Irma response as part of FEMA's Pennsylvania Task Force 1, said spokeswoman Elise Armacost.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced Friday that a slew of Maryland agencies stand ready to help with both Irma and Harvey relief. The Maryland Department of Commerce, for example, plans to assist people from other states find temporary housing in hotels and motels in this area.

The Maryland Department of Human Services, the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, among other agencies, have also pledged services to those affected by the storm.

"MEMA continues to monitor requests for assistance in areas that expect to be impacted by Irma or are recovering from Harvey,” said executive director Russell Strickland. “We are actively working with our state and local partners to coordinate resource support available throughout the Maryland emergency management system."

The Maryland National Guard has not received a request to assist with Irma relief in Florida, according to spokesman Charles Kohler.

There’s a strategic reason for keeping the guard close — it’s not yet certain how how badly Maryland might be hit, and whether those resources might be needed here.

Although Irma is expected to weaken to a tropical storm over Alabama, Georgia or South Carolina by late Monday, forecasters expect the storm to bring heavy rain and strong winds across the Southeast.

Its track will determine whether Maryland sees much of the storm — an easterly path could bring heavy rain and blustery winds late Monday through Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service, though a westerly one could mean little impact here.

“The main reason why we didn’t send anyone for Irma yet is because we are in the potential path,” Kohler said. “We could be impacted by it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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