A Florida-bound convoy of Nebraska firefighters hit the road early Friday en route for unspecified Hurricane Irma relief missions in a rare, repeat natural-disaster deployment.
It's the second hurricane-related mission for Lincoln-based Nebraska Task Force 1 in as many weeks.
"I don't think they ever had a back-to-back callout," Lincoln Fire Chief Micheal Despain said Friday.
Nebraska Task Force 1's 80-member search-and-rescue team is the largest contingent of Nebraskans to respond so far since a one-two punch of hurricanes socked Texas and threatened Florida.
But even as task force semis and trucks passed through St. Louis early Friday, some groups from the Cornhusker State continued their own Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in Texas, and others prepared missions into Irma's path.
Dozens of American Red Cross volunteers from the Cornhusker State were either working in Texas or en route to Florida, a spokesman said Friday. Union College students gathered hammers, saws and other construction items to distribute to Texans cleaning up their homes in Port Arthur and Beaumont. And several Nebraska utilities, including Nebraska Public Power District and Loup Public Power District, readied crews to help restore Floridians' power once Hurricane Irma makes landfall.
About 20 workers and 14 vehicles from NPPD are expected to leave Monday morning to assist in the Tampa area.
“NPPD is planning to support any restoration efforts in Tampa for the next two weeks,” said transmission and distribution manager Art Wiese. “We will prepare for any additional support beyond that time if needed.”
Mutual aid requests from Florida began this week in preparation of the storm, which is expected to hit landfall early Sunday morning as a Category 4 hurricane.
Loup Public Power is sending 14 workers to Florida to assist for two weeks.
Airmen and soldiers with the Nebraska National Guard were expected to return home from Texas this weekend after responding to Hurricane Harvey rescue efforts, and stood ready to deploy to Florida if called upon, a spokesman said.
Support back home helped make the task force's tight turnaround possible, members said.
"People in the fire service are used to going from one emergency to another," said Brad Thavenet, a battalion chief with Lincoln Fire and Rescue.
Still, the logistics of two major missions in a row were "a heavy lift."
Thavenet thanked "those back home that made that happen, made that possible for Nebraska to go represent Nebraskans and be pushed out the door as quickly as they could."
Inland Truck Parts and Service in north Lincoln rearranged its workload so its staff could quickly inspect the task force's rigs once they returned from Texas late Tuesday.
"We had a full schedule, and when we called our customers to tell them the situation and that their repairs might be delayed and why. They were more than understanding," said Adam Christ, Inland's general manager.
They serviced five semitrucks and seven trailers between Tuesday evening and Thursday, with as many as four technicians simultaneously working on individual rigs, he said.
At the fire department's maintenance shop near the Lincoln Airport, Battalion Chief Kendall Warnock's crew put fire apparatus work on hold so his mechanics could address water damage to the team's pickups.
"We basically stopped what we were doing," Warnock said.
Other members of the task force who hadn't deployed helped check out the team's boats to ensure their readiness for an Irma deployment, he said.
"It was everybody, all hands on deck, pitching in."
Among the 80-person team headed for Florida are 35 members who deployed to Texas. That includes 21 firefighters from Lincoln Fire and Rescue, many of them semi drivers or boat operators.
Another 17 members of Lincoln's fire department will join the team for this deployment, but didn't go to Texas.
Lincoln Fire and Rescue will continue to maintain its normal staffing levels by using overtime to backfill the vacancies, Despain said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency pays for that overtime. It also covers expenses and wages for task force members working in the disaster areas.
Maintaining staffing long-term is a general concern with back-to-back deployments, as firefighters here work longer weeks with fewer days off, Despain said.
"It just gets a little old after a while."
The task force is expected to arrive at its staging point, Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, by Saturday afternoon or early Sunday.
Thavenet has not returned to Lincoln since his initial deployment to Houston last month. He left that disaster area for a command center in Tallahassee, where federal emergency management officials are preparing the logistics of Hurricane Irma search-and-rescue operations.
Among the planning challenges for Thavenet and others: determining how teams like Nebraska Task Force 1 will access areas such as Key West, Key Largo or Marathon if the storm knocks out bridges connecting those island cities to the mainland.
The task force won't head into affected areas while the storm is raging, but officials are considering naval ships and military cargo planes to transport task force crews like Nebraska's to work.
“Anything and everything is up for discussion,” Thavenet said.