As Hurricane Fiona continues to thrash the Caribbean with torrential rain — slamming the Dominican Republic on Monday before leaving Puerto Rico without power — 45 Nebraskans deployed to the U.S. territory for a search and rescue operation that could last as long as three weeks.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday night activated Nebraska Task Force 1, an urban search and rescue team of Nebraska-based first responders and private citizens that departed the Lincoln Airport for its mission Monday afternoon.
The deployment marks the first time the task force has been activated in more than a year, the first time the group will fly to a disaster site since 9/11 and the first time the force will leave the continental United States for a rescue operation.
"We always have the opportunity to go serve neighbors, whether it's in the state of Nebraska for floods, whether it's down in Florida or Texas for hurricanes, and now we just have the opportunity to do it at a greater level," said Capt. Dan Ripley, a Lincoln Fire and Rescue operator who will lead the task force during its deployment in Puerto Rico.
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"We don't really think about the bad things. We're there to do good things. We're there to be aggressive in what we do, to help people get better, out of situations that this hurricane has placed them in."
Ripley, who has previously led the task force in its at-home operation responding to Nebraska's 2019 floods, said the exact nature of the group's mission in Puerto Rico remains fluid, but will "be in the purview of search and rescue."
The hurricane, which struck the island's southwest coast Sunday and threatened to dump up to 30 inches of rain Sunday and Monday, has brought flooding and mudslides, destroyed swaths of island roads, enveloped an airport runway and temporarily disabled the territory's power grid.
The fraught conditions, Ripley said, are nothing new for the task force.
"We're prepared for that," he said. "It's gonna be a state of things that some of us have seen before from prior deployments, but also an opportunity for us to go help those in those situations that are pretty rough."
Nebraska Task Force 1 most often travels by ground, as it did to Louisiana last August, carrying with it a hefty cache of tools and equipment used in operations. The task force has slimmed its payload to adapt to air travel, Ripley said, and will rely on FEMA resources to help fill in the gaps once on the island.
The task force — one of 28 FEMA-affiliated teams across the country — includes first responders from Lincoln, Omaha, Council Bluffs, Iowa, Grand Island and Papillion. The task force also includes a doctor, a structural engineer and a pair of K9 handlers.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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