Peninsula firefighters among group responding to Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico

Contact ReporterYork/Poquoson reporter

Newport News firefighter Brian Sanzo said he was used to dealing with hurricanes but maybe not one as powerful as Hurricane Irma.

Speaking from a hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday evening, he guessed the winds outside were a tropical storm strength and getting stronger.

“In the evening and afternoon, we’ll be getting busy,” he said.

He and the other 44 Hampton Roads firefighters in San Juan are seasoned from assisting after hurricanes Katrina, Ivan and Francis, to name a few. That’s part of their job as members of Virginia Task Force 2 Urban Search and Rescue Team, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national system of search and rescue teams that are called to respond in large-scale emergency situations.

Sanzo and the other firefighters were plugged into the news updates that relayed Irma as “unprecedented.” As of about 5 p.m. Wednesday, Irma was a Category 5 hurricane about 55 miles from San Juan, with winds blowing up to 185 mph.

But Sanzo knew he wouldn’t have to wait long to see the hurricane and its impact on the island firsthand.

The task force found out Monday that some of its members would be activated by FEMA to assist the local crews in San Juan. After gathering supplies and packing them onto planes, the first six members arrived in San Juan about 10 a.m. Tuesday. The rest arrived about nine hours later.

Sanzo said Wednesday was spent preparing with the local first responders, getting resources together and finalizing plans. When he spoke on the phone with the Daily Press, Sanzo said they were waiting out the storm and may be out in the morning, depending on how quickly it moved.

Task Force 2 is one of 28 in the country and is based in Virginia Beach, with members from throughout Hampton Roads and in Hanover County. Along with Sanzo, Peninsula firefighters from James City County, Newport News, Williamsburg and York County are in San Juan.

Art Kohn, a spokesman for the Virginia Beach Fire Department, said Task Force 2 is one of the most frequently deployed units. Kohn recalled the team going to Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing, to the Pentagon after 9/11 and to South Carolina for Hurricane Joaquin in 2015.

“The idea is to have people highly skilled in search and rescue ready to mobilize,” Kohn said of the FEMA system.

The firefighters deployed to San Juan include search and rescue and hazardous materials specialists.

York County Assistant Fire Chief Chris Sadler said his department has six firefighters in the task force and two in Puerto Rico right now. He said FEMA pays the firefighters when they’re deployed and pays to backfill their positions while they’re gone.

Kohn said they expect the task force will be gone seven to 10 days. However, the task force may be sent to Florida, St. Thomas or other impacted areas directly from San Juan to assist.

The task force has been busy in the last couple of weeks — 14 members were sent to Katy, Texas, to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Those members returned Tuesday night. In Texas, the team assisted more than 500 people, according to a post on its Facebook page.

Reyes can be reached by phone at 757-247-4692. Follow him on Twitter @jdauzreyes.

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