CAPITAL REGION — As record-setting Hurricane Irma closes in on Florida — after causing death and devastation in the Caribbean — the New York Air National Guard and local chapter of the American Red Cross are preparing to help with recovery efforts.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that 124 members of the 106th Rescue Wing on Long Island are being deployed to the hard-hit U.S. Virgin Islands, taking along three helicopters, two C-130 search-and-rescue craft and three Zodiac inflatable rescue boats.
"Just as New York stood shoulder to shoulder with Texas and Louisiana during Hurricane Harvey, we stand ready to provide any support and assistance we can with our neighbors in need," Cuomo said in a prepared statement.
Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane that caused heavy destruction in Puerto Rico and through the Caribbean Islands, was — as of Thursday night — predicted to strike the tip of Florida on Sunday morning, with forecasters saying it has the potential to be as destructive as Hurricane Andrew in 1992. At least seven people died as the storm passed over the Caribbean, where power outages and destruction are widespread.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has urged people in the Florida Keys and South Florida to evacuate ahead of the storm, saying it will be worse than Andrew.
Cuomo announced that a state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services urban search-and-rescue team — including members from the Schenectady and Saratoga Springs fire departments — left the Capital Region for Florida on Thursday. Cuomo said a separate 30-member state incident management team was still working in the Houston area, as the response to Harvey's flooding continues there.
The local Red Cross chapter, meanwhile, still has volunteers working in Texas and Louisiana, and the organization's eastern New York chapter is already sending people to Florida to be ready for whatever disaster response is required.
"It's definitely a very busy time, and a lot of people are needed to help," Red Cross chapter spokeswoman Kimmy Venter said.
There are about 35 local volunteers currently deployed in the areas hit two weeks ago by Hurricane Harvey, and 11 Red Cross volunteers have been sent to Florida so far, Venter said.
Venter said some local Red Cross volunteers have flown into Orlando and are working with partners there to prepare shelters.
"We want them to be in a safe place or places, like shelters," Venter said. "We want to get them down there in time that they can be in place when we need them."
The Florida response will come as 16,000 people are still living in shelters in Texas and Louisiana, where Harvey brought huge volumes of rain — more than 4 feet of it — causing destructive flooding from the Houston area east into Louisiana.
On Thursday evening, News10 ABC in Albany was hosting a telethon to raise money for the Red Cross response to Harvey. Venter said Harvey will still be the focus of that fundraiser, despite Irma's dangerous potential.
"Even though we know Hurricane Irma is coming, we know the need down there (in Texas) is going to be great," Venter said.
She added that the Red Cross has been overwhelmed by the response to a series of volunteer training "boot camps" over the past two weeks, with more than 200 new volunteers signed up — though most aren't yet ready to be deployed, since they must undergo background checks and have availability.
A training planned at Saratoga Springs City Hall for Wednesday is nearly filled up. Venter said those who want to volunteer but aren't yet signed up should register at redcross.org.
Pets stranded by Harvey are also being taken in by a local shelter.
The Mohawk Hudson Humane Society in Menands sent three vans to Rhode Island on Thursday to pick up as many as 35 animals from the Houston area; the animals are expected to become available for adoption.
The shelter is part of the Humane Society of the United States emergency placement partner team.
"We've been at the ready to assist since we first learned Harvey was on its way," society President and CEO Todd Cramer said.
He said the animals being brought to the local shelter don't have families; those with identified owners were being kept at shelters closer to the disaster area pending reunions with their owners.
Cramer, who responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is heading to North Carolina on Friday as part of a Humane Society response team for Irma, and there's the possibility of more pets being brought to the Menands shelter.
Meanwhile, Albany International Airport reported Thursday that flights coming into Albany from Florida are filled.
"JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines report that their Albany flights from Fort Lauderdale and Orlando are sold out for Sept. 8, 9 and 10," airport spokesman Doug Myers said in a prepared statement.
Outbound flight cancellations due to Irma's impacts on Florida are expected this weekend, he added. Those expecting to fly to Florida should check with airlines or monitor the airport's website, albanyairport.com, for the latest flight information.
The major airlines are offering those traveling to areas impacted by Irma an opportunity to rebook their flights with no additional fees.