ORLANDO — Inside a gigantic exhibit hall at the second-largest convention center in the United States, where the hurricane rescue-and-recovery team for Florida is staged, Air Force Technical Sgt. Gary McGraw looked sharp. His uniform, crisp. His crew cut, flat. And his attitude, pure American can-do.
When Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs met him on a Sunday tour of the facility, he firmly shook her hand and turned toward one of five Pave Hawk helicopters ready to deploy when Hurricane Irma passes.
“The way I see it, the soup is arriving now,” McGraw said as a heavy rain pounded the metal roof so hard that it sounded like stadium applause. “As soon as the soup is over, we go out.” Whatever Irma tries to take, McGraw wants to take it back. “My crews are ready to rock. We are ready to go.”
More than 500 military personnel and fire and rescue workers from at least six states are on standby in Orlando to conduct rescue missions in Florida after Irma spins north. Some of the soldiers had just left Houston, where they helped victims of Hurricane Harvey.
They are bunking on cots, scarfing down Meals Ready to Eat, pacing the hard and glossy convention floor, waiting for the call. “The plan is for us to standby for maritime search and rescue,” said Capt. Brian Thomas. “We train specific for this. We’re ready. We’re honored to be a part of it.”
Alongside the Pave Hawks, which flew missions in Afghanistan but are now retrofitted for search and rescue, sat about a dozen helicopters for police, hospitals and television news crews at the convention center’s 950,000-square-foot north-south exhibit hall. In the 1.1 million-square-foot west concourse, motorized boats were stacked next to fire vehicles, bulldozers and other equipment.
Outside in the driving rain sat 800 utility repair vehicles, mostly from Duke Energy, whose operators were staying in towering, stormproof hotels nearby.
With Irma lashing the Florida Keys, Miami, Naples, Sanibel Island and Tampa Bay, areas that millions of Floridians left but where hundreds probably remained behind, the equipment and their crews will almost certainly be needed.
Miami, Naples and Marco Island were inundated by storm surge, possibly trapping residents who refused to evacuate. Florida Power & Light estimated that up to 6 million people could lose power. Tampa, in the storm’s path, was projected to lose 60 percent of its power.
Jacobs, the county mayor, wanted to thank the military and private crews for their bravery and hard work. Wearing soft white sneakers, she worked two rooms that each seemed to cover five city blocks in every direction.
Crews of California, Arizona and Colorado firefighters sat discussing strategy at one table. In another area, workers for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission stood chatting around motorized rafts stack in threes. Elsewhere, soldiers leaned on heavy equipment.
They work together in color-coded teams, said Shawn Gallagher, a coordinator for the Florida Forest Service who keeps track of workers and equipment “because we have to feed them.”
Gallagher ordered about 1,500 MREs for the crews. About 13,000 arrived, and now he’s wondering what to do with them.
They can take them on the road for a mission that could last for weeks. Gallagher said that more than likely the teams will head southwest to Tampa, Naples, the Keys and places in between, ravaged by the storm. A two-person scout team will be dispatched first to record danger areas where flooding and power lines lurk.