Oakland-based FEMA team heads to help in Hurricane Ida rescue

FEMA has search and rescue teams from around the U.S. headed to Louisiana. One of them Oakland-based. California's Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 4 got the call Sunday at 10 am and was on the road by 6 pm. The team is made up of 45 people from 14 Bay Area agencies make up the Ida roster, all of them with specialized training and equipment.

"Everyone on this team wants to go and be part of the rescue effort," said Robert Lipp, Assistant Chief of the Oakland Fire Dept, and manager of the SAR squad, noting the deployment could last as long as 21 days. "They want to be one of the people who are right there, helping the people of Louisiana and beyond."

On Sunday, they organized and loaded supplies: a swiftwater boat, listening listening devices and cameras, medical equipment, hazardous materials abatement, and a 3-dog canine team.

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"The dogs do live rescue and they are faster than any technology at finding people," said handler Rudy Valencia, a member of the task force from the Berkeley Fire Department. "In practice, these dogs are stellar, just incredible, they find their victims in minutes and they will be invaluable if needed on this mission."

Task Force 4 will drive 30 hours straight to Baton Rouge, with four persons per vehicle, rotating drivers, and sleeping in shifts. It will be their last down-time for a while.

"Expect a lot of flood water, trees toppled, homes without roofs, the damage is quite expensive and can last for a long time," said John Ruiz, Regional Disaster Officer for the American Red Cross. 

Ruiz, based in the Bay Area, has rushed to previous hurricanes, but says the west coast response to this one is muted due to the ongoing wildfire crisis. With no let-up in the fire emergency, Red Cross can't send people and resources far away. 

"Right now, because we have such a high fire threat and such an extensive response within the western U.S. our strategy is to keep our resources more within this part of the country," said Ruiz. 

 Local Red Cross teams are already scattered, caring for fire evacuees in dozens of shelters across California, Oregon and Washington. He notes Red Cross shelters are already open in the hurricane zone, holding about 2,000 people before the surge came ashore. Those shelters have capacity for 20,000 people, if needed in the days ahead.

The Oakland-based FEMA convoy should reach its destination Tuesday evening. "When our country calls we expect to step up and assist when we can," said Oakland Fire Chief Reginald Freeman.

With team-members coming from multiple departments, Freeman says the agencies should be able to absorb the absences. Local Red Cross teams are already scattered, caring for fire evacuees in dozens of shelters across California, Oregon and Washington. The agency is appealing for more volunteers and donations, as some fires have been burning over a month.

"It's a risk, absolutely a calculated risk," said Freeman. "However we are very confident in our staffing and will definitely be able to handle any emergency as it arises here in the city of Oakland."