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Miami bypasses feds to deploy search and rescue crews to the Bahamas

Frustrated that one of the country’s most skilled search and rescue teams has been sidelined in the effort to help Bahamians after Hurricane Dorian, city leaders in Miami have found a way to bypass federal restrictions so they can deploy dozens of skilled firefighter-paramedics to the ravaged islands.

In a press conference Thursday morning, Miami’s mayor said that rather than waiting for federal approval to send the Urban Search and Rescue team from Miami, the city is working out an agreement directly with the Bahamian government to send firefighters who are part of the federal team. But the search and rescue specialists will go strictly in their role as Miami firefighters.

“In the first few days, this is when it’s the most critical,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said in Thursday’s press conference outside Miami City Hall. “We just felt a moral obligation, frankly, to do everything we can do ... Lives are at stake.”

Miami’s decision to unofficially send its trained search and rescue crews comes amid growing urgency in South Florida to assist a neighboring country devastated by 185-mph winds and a massive storm surge. By Thursday night, the death toll in the Bahamas had reached 30 from the storm, which flooded homes up to their roofs and tossed cars and boats.

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Aliana Alexis of Haiti stands on the concrete slab of what is left of her home after destruction from Hurricane Dorian in an area called “The Mudd” at Marsh Harbour in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas, on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

The U.S. Agency for International Development says it deployed a trained Urban Search and Rescue team of 57 firefighters from Fairfax, Va., Wednesday to the Bahamas with 50,000 pounds of medical equipment, and placed another team from Los Angeles on standby. The U.S. Coast Guard is also assisting, and said Thursday morning that its members have rescued 135 people and six pets since Hurricane Dorian began.

But Miami’s search and rescue team falls under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which held the team in Orlando alongside emergency managers to be deployed in the U.S. if Dorian, now a Category 2 storm, strikes the Carolinas.

Suarez said Thursday that Miami’s team had only just been released from Orlando — now that Dorian has headed north — but he did not know if the team would be sent to the Bahamas.

Miami-Dade County, which has its own search-and-rescue team, also plans to use a power catamaran to ship out 15 county firefighters Friday for the Bahamas at its own expense after the Trump administration opted not to send the crew as part of its assistance to the Bahamian government. Another county crew of 25 is slated to leave Sunday.

“This is our government’s contribution to our neighbors,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said at the start of a budget hearing Thursday night.

President Donald Trump, in a call Wednesday with Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis of the Bahamas, said the U.S. “will provide all appropriate support to the people of the Bahamas” following the hurricane. But the decision by FEMA to hold both Miami and Miami-Dade’s search and rescue teams back in Florida has frustrated some in Miami.

U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Miami, called the hesitancy “unconscionable.”

“We have world class search and rescue teams with tremendous experience dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes,” she said in a statement to the Miami Herald.

But there are also concerns about making sure the response is coordinated and effective.

Linda Mackey, consul general for the Bahamas in Miami, told the Miami Herald she understood why the U.S. and Bahamian governments must take time to assess the situation before deploying additional rescue teams.

But she also said she feels an urgency because lives are at stake.

“There’s bureaucracy because there has to be a process in place,” she said, acknowledging her frustration. “But we’re working around that.”

Some of the complication lies in red tape.

The teams from Virginia and California that were deployed Wednesday to the Bahamas are internationally certified by the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, and fall under the authority of the U.S. Agency for International Development. A Trump administration source explained that Miami’s team has been on standby to assist with domestic efforts because the lack of certification creates complications related to insurance.

But Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban disputed that, noting that Miami’s team was deployed to Haiti after the massive earthquake in 2010 that killed hundreds of thousands of people. He said that FEMA can deploy Miami’s search and rescue team as long as it has a request to do so from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Under the plan to send the team members in their roles as firefighters, Zahralban said the city’s specialists will already be in the Bahamas if the federal government decides to deploy them.

“These are USAR team members trained in search and rescue that will be wearing a City of Miami fire department uniform, so they will be sent as City of Miami firefighters,” Zahralban said. “If it moves to an urban search and rescue response, the transition is easy because it’s many of the same people.”

In a Wednesday conference call, representatives of the U.S. State Department, Coast Guard and USAID said they will send more teams if needed.

“Right now the capacity to receive flights to the Bahamas and move teams around is very limited,” a USAID official said, promising additional help if needed. “We want to make sure that we are not wasting resources.”

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat of Bahamian heritage, told the Miami Herald Thursday that she’s been assured by the federal government that Miami’s search and rescue team should get official clearance to work in the Bahamas within the next 24 hours. Wilson, who is often critical of the Trump administration, said she understands the urgency to help the islands but also has concerns about the consequences of an uncoordinated response.

“We have to remember that the Bahamas itself has its own equivalent of FEMA. They’re doing search and rescue also. And what we don’t want to do is compromise the air space,” she said. “It’s my understanding that whole casino tables are floating in the ocean. Refrigerators, cars, parts of buildings. It’s very dangerous and the Bahamas itself needs to be in control of who is and what is coming, in conjunction with USAID.”

But she said the South Florida rescue teams have had plenty of experience in such tragedies, and should be in the Bahamas.

“We had this with [the earthquake in] Haiti and other places in the Caribbean. We have the kind of experience that LA County and Fairfax don’t have,” she said.

This article has been corrected to reflect that the U.S. Agency for International Development deployed the Urban Search and Rescue team from Fairfax to the Bahamas, and that the team from Los Angeles is on standby.

McClatchy DC reporters Alex Daugherty and Michael Wilner and Miami Herald reporter Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

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