Relief efforts getting up to speed in Texas just as Irma prepares to wallop Florida

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AUSTIN — Relief efforts in Texas are gearing up and the task of rebuilding homes and businesses is coming into focus in the wake of Harvey and its unprecedented flooding, but another monster is about to hit the U.S. — a category 5 behemoth named Irma, which is closing in on Florida.

Irma’s intensity threatens to dwarf Hurricane Harvey, which dropped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston, killed more than 60 people and ravaged the Gulf Coast last week. And it also is likely to lure resources away from Texas as the U.S. faces the real possibility of taking on two major coastal catastrophes, stretching the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, Red Cross and a slew of other relief organizations.

That’s not to mention the strain on taxpayers to cover the cost of recovery from the one-two punch of the mega-storms. President Donald Trump has asked Congress to allocate $7.8 billion for Harvey relief, although Gov. Greg Abbott says Texas could need as much as $125 billion. The total costs are likely to soar after Irma strikes.

While more than 31,000 federal employees — including more than 3,000 FEMA staff — continue working to support Harvey recovery efforts, the nation’s chief emergency operation already is activating field operations from the southeastern U.S. up the East coast along Hurricane Irma’s expected path. The agency has deployed 124 people to the U.S. Virgin Island and Puerto Rico, where the storm is expected to first hit.

Helicopters from the Coast Guard flown to Houston to help search and rescue missions left Texas over the long weekend, allowing pilots and staff to return home and rest, maintain their aircraft and “wait for Irma,” said John Miller, chief petty officer for the guard.

Abbott said Tuesday he is willing to send any assistance Texas can spare to Florida should Irma wallop the Sunshine State, returning the favor after various Florida resources had been brought to Texas to deal with Harvery’s aftermath, including assets from the National Guard, personnel and game rangers.

Abbott, who said he spoke to fellow Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida to offer Texas’ support, said Irma’s path is too early to forecast. For now, he said, “Texas does not need to be concerned about it. But with these storms, who knows?”

Exactly where Irma might hit the United States was unclear Tuesday as various models predicted the churning hurricane’s development off the Leeward Island in the Atlantic Ocean could bend northward and bulldoze Florida or skim the coast. Some emergency officials were concerned it could track further westward into the Gulf of Mexico and eventually threaten Texas, although Florida was the focus Tuesday.

Irma, already at the maximum intensity of category 5, is the strongest Atlantic storm in a decade, with winds of 185 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center. And behind it is another developing storm named Jose.

In Florida, Scott declared a statewide emergency and asked President Donald Trump on Tuesday to declare a pre-landfall emergency. Millions of people could be evacuated from parts of the state and draw federal and volunteer resources as Texas begins to find its footing after nearly two weeks wading through storm waters and sifting through debris of homes up and down the Gulf.

“From the Texas perspective, we are beginning to take steps to transition from an emergency response posture to disaster recovery in coordination with our federal and local partners,” said Tom Vinger, press secretary for the Texas Department of Public Safety. “We are confident that we have the resources needed through this transition period to continue providing any assistance requested by local officials in the Texas communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey.”

FEMA officials still in Texas are largely helping survivors register for federal aid in the dozens of counties ravaged by the storm. While the agency has begun pre-deploying assets and resources for Irma with people on alert to move people into the region once forecasters get a better handle on the landfall, attention on the new storm shouldn’t disrupt FEMA’s recovery efforts, said Bob Howard, a spokesman from FEMA. “Most of the resources for the Texas recovery are already in place. Irma will be a total separate disaster operation,” he said.

The American Red Cross, which is now sheltering 32,000 people in 192 shelters and partner shelters across the state, is also turning its attention to Irma. As the waters from Harvey recede, so has the number of people who are leaning on the agency for a place to stay. About 10,000 people have left those shelters in the last five days, and more are expected to follow and more people are able to access their homes, said Bristel Minsker, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.

“We don’t have any immediate plans to divert any resources” from Texas to handle Irma, she said, adding that volunteers here won’t be pulled off their jobs here unless they are no longer needed. Volunteers who signed up to help in Texas but had yet to be deployed could be rerouted to support Irma recovery efforts, she said, operating shelters and providing supplies to people short of food, a bed and other necessities.

While the Red Cross encourages people to make monetary donations to support disaster victims, officials in Dallas said they’ve run out of room storing clothing an other supplies.

Instead, they said save them — for Irma.

Mike Ward contributed to his report.

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