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Response begins as Irene moves on

Disaster response organizations aid survivors, plan for response, as millions are impacted

BY JOHN PAPE | BALTIMORE | August 27, 2011

The death toll from Hurricane Irene reached eight as the massive storm continued its trek up the Eastern Seaboard Saturday, putting Maryland; Washington, DC and the New Jersey shore on high alert for overnight hurricane-force winds.

One of the fatalities was an 11-year-old Newport News boy who died when a tree crashed into his apartment, crushing him to death.

By Sunday, the storm was expected to be pounding New York City before continuing north into New England.

Even as winds, rain and surf pounded North Carolina and Virginia, faith-based groups and VOAD member organizations mobilized to meet the immediate needs of storm survivors.

The Salvation Army moved personnel and vehicles into staging locations in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. From those locations, Salvationists planned to dispatch mobile feeding units to provide food, drinks and spiritual and emotional care to emergency responders and those affected by the storm.

Disaster response teams were also on the ground from Florida to Maine, serving first responders, assisting the evacuation of low-lying areas, feeding at shelters and providing a broad range of support before Hurricane Irene makes landfall.

“We are taking this hurricane extremely seriously and are working closely with partner agencies to ensure we can provide a strong response to any impacts of the storm,” said Major George Hood, National Community Relations Secretary for The Salvation Army in the U.S. “Our personnel will be working overnight and throughout the weekend to guarantee we can meet the needs.”

In total, The Salvation Army had 370 canteens and five mobile feeding kitchens throughout the region. Collectively, these stations can provide several hundred thousand meals per day when operating at full capacity. Additionally, The Salvation Army was prepared to provide a broad range of services, in coordination with local, state and federal governments, including supporting shelter operations and evacuations.

Yesterday, Commissioner William Roberts, National Commander of The Salvation Army, declared Hurricane Irene a national disaster, which puts all units on alert status throughout the United States. With the declaration, all divisions of The Salvation Army were prepared to assist by preparing staff, equipment and supplies to support impacted areas along the East Coast.

A number of faith-based organizations said they are ready to assist partners as needs unfold as a result of this disaster. “We’ve been in touch with some of the Episcopal dioceses that are in Irene’s path, and let them know that we’re on alert,” said Katie Mears, the Program Manager for USA Disaster Preparedness and Response of Episcopal Relief & Development. “Many of them have been preparing for just such an event and have developed diocesan-wide response plans.”

Both The United Methodist Committee on Relief and the Disaster Response Ministries of the United Church of Christ (UCC) said on their Websites they were contacting regional denominational conferences located in the hurricane’s path.

Children’s Disaster Services, a ministry of the Church of the Brethren, reported on its Facebook page that it had polled volunteers and that at least 60 people said they were available to respond for up to two weeks.

The American Red Cross was also preparing to assist an unprecedented number of people with a major relief operation all along the Eastern Seaboard.

“We’re talking about a massive response effort by The American Red Cross,” Kate Meier with the North Carolina Red Cross said.

More than 13,000 people spent Friday night in hundreds of shelters opened across several states, primarily North Carolina and Virginia. Many more shelters were set to open throughout the weekend as the storm moves to the north.

Volunteers from partner organizations like AmeriCorps NCCC and the Southern Baptist Convention worked alongside Red Cross volunteers in many areas.

Given the unprecedented scope of the storm and the threat to such a large population area, assistance was coming in from as far away as California, with the California Emergency Management Agency sending experts trained in search and rescue, emergency operations, planning and logistics to help with state and local emergency response efforts.

“We’re hoping for the best for all of those in the path of Hurricane Irene and we urge residents to take this storm seriously,” Cal EMA Acting Secretary Mike Dayton said. “California stands ready to provide assistance to our sister states as they prepare for this natural disaster. We’re appreciative of the help we received in the past and are glad to provide help in their time of need.”

With Irene poised to cut a broad path through New York, the New York Disaster Interfaith Services also placed its staff and members on alert to assist with recovery efforts. In a message late Friday, NYDIS Executive Vice President Ruth Yoder Wenger said members would be “in constant contact throughout the weekend,” and convene Monday morning to begin the process of assessing impacts and responding to unmet needs of survivors.

“NYDIS and its members are working hard to keep our faith communities, their congregations and social service facilities informed about the storm's progress and to prepare our clients, staff and the public,” Wenger said.

By Saturday afternoon, Irene had been downgraded to a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph; however, National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said there remained “a high probability” of storm surges of 4-8 feet. Coupled with an expected 5-10 inches of rain, the mid-Atlantic states, New York and New England could expect flash flooding and river flooding, Read said.

At 5 p.m. Saturday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center reported Irene was about to re-emerge into Atlantic waters after battering much of North Carolina and Virginia all day. Although the storm had picked up forward speed, it was not expected to significantly strengthen as it moves into the New York City area and New England. It was expected to weaken into a tropical storm sometime late Sunday night or early Monday morning.

Hurricane center forecasters also described Irene’s massive size as “the size of Europe,” but said its eye never organized well enough for the storm to strengthen. Instead, it became a “large, lumbering” storm with an eye that was, at times, 60 miles wide.

“Irene is a large tropical cyclone. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 85 miles from the center and tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 290 miles,” the National Hurricane Center said.

In the District of Columbia, Washington Mayor Vincent Gray declared a state of emergency.

“We’re telling people to go home,” Gray said.

By Saturday afternoon, the usually-bustling streets of the nation’s capital were virtually deserted and Gray declared “we’re ready for this.”

As DC hunkered down, coastal Maryland was beginning to feel hurricane-strength winds.

Despite a mandatory evacuation order in the beach resort community of Ocean City, some 300 of the city’s 7,000 people chose to ignore the warning and instead ride out the storm.

An exasperated Mayor Rick Meehan told those still in the vulnerable community by late afternoon to remain in place and not try to evacuate at the last minute.

“If they’re still there now, it’s too late to try and evacuate. They need to remain sheltered where they are; it’s too dangerous to try and leave at this point,” Meehan said.

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