Virginia task force in Puerto Rico ready to respond to Hurricane Irma

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RICHMOND, Va. -- A Virginia-based task force is in Puerto Rico ready to respond after Hurricane Irma. The category 5 storm  is expected to pass near or just north of Puerto Rico Wednesday.

Virginia Task Force 2 has 45 rescue specialists in San Juan. Among them, Henrico firefighter Mike Bassett.

Michael Barakey is the deputy task force leader from Virginia Beach.

"We're prepared to go to work,” he said in a Skype interview Wednesday morning before the storm.


Virginia Task Force 2 arrived Tuesday with two packed military aircraft.

"We brought 16 pallets of equipment and six vehicles. Two are large and four are small command vehicles,” Barakey said.

The task force is composed of mostly Hampton Roads firefighters, but there are also crews from all over the Commonwealth.

Bassett is a rescue specialist with the Henrico County Fire Department.

"We do everything from search to water rescue and building collapse,” said Bassett.

The team can be deployed by FEMA to respond to emergencies. The task force specializes in urban search and rescues.

"We have boats and water crafts that can go into flooded areas and can do search and rescues in flooded areas. We also do wide-area search with boots on the ground performing area searches to try to identify people who are lost,” said Barakey.

Barakey said the team has responded to hurricanes before, but Hurricane Irma could present new challenges in a new environment.

"It's not as structurally sound or hardened as areas we are used to dealing with in the States. But the core city of San Juan is built to code, it's areas outside of San Juan that could be a challenge, the rural areas. The bridges and some of the roads appear to be not be as sound,” he said.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló has declared a state of emergency and has activated the National Guard in preparation. He said the island's infrastructure won't be able to withstand Irma's force.  One major concern is the island’s weak electrical system. Storm damage could leave some areas without power for a week, and others for four to six months.

"These are very strong winds that we're talking about, something that we have never experienced here in Puerto Rico before and quite frankly and not a lot of jurisdictions have. So again we asked the people to keep us in their thoughts and prayers hoping for the worst part of the hurricane to get us by,” said Gov. Rosselló.