Va. Task Force 2 team heading to Puerto Rico

Members of Virginia Task Force 2 were moved to St. Thomas from Puerto Rico Sept. 8, 2017. Credit: Virginia Beach Fire Department.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Members of Virginia Task Force 2 are again mobilizing to help the Caribbean — this time for Hurricane Maria.

Officials with the Virginia Beach Fire Department said a task force urban search and rescue team left Monday afternoon from Norfolk, heading to Puerto Rico. Crew members say they know they’re headed directly into the storm, but that gives them the best opportunity to help people.

“This is what we’re here for,” says VBFD Program Manager Fire Chief Tracy Freeman.

The island is bracing for possible impact from Maria. The US National Hurricane Center said Monday that Maria could become a major hurricane by the time it passes the Leeward Islands.

This latest response in Puerto Rico comes fresh on the heels of the damage and devastation seen from Hurricane Irma.

Gallery: Va. Task Force 2 responds to Irma

Members of the task force returned home over the weekend, after spending 12 days providing relief and response in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Although Puerto Rico was spared the worst of Irma, Maria’s track could mean a direct hit for the island. The task will be sending 77 people to join three members who stayed behind in Puerto Rico.

“If we don’t get there before the storm, then it will probably be 24-48 hours just to get in and do any help, just in San Juan,” says Michael Barakey, VBFD Assistant Task Force Leader. Barakey says their anticipated window of finding and helping people is 96 hours, so they have to act quickly.

“That window becomes narrower and narrower after every day post-landfall,” says Barakey. He was in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Irma, then went to St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“For search and rescue, for what we bring, and the capabilities and the amount of team members that we brought, we were the first people on that island that were able to provide that function,” he says.

Barakey arrived back in Virginia Beach around 4 a.m. Saturday morning. Not even three days later, he’s heading back out and says he is ready to work.

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“Your mode there is to perform the search, try to find people who need to be rescued, and then perform the rescue after you find them,” Barakey says.

The task force is made up of firefighters, medics, K9 search and rescue teams, logistics specialists, and more.

They’ve all trained for this, but Freeman says they also know anything can happen, especially given what they experienced after Irma.

“It’s a little bit different to be launching boats in the middle of city streets, especially in a city like Houston,” says Freeman.

Stay with WAVY.com for the latest updates to Hurricane Maria.