Local firefighters just back from Houston deploy to Florida

SAN DIEGO -- Many of the members of a San Diego-based Urban Search and Rescue Team that just returned from storm-ravaged Houston are heading right back out, this time to Florida, where Hurricane Irma is likely to strike Saturday.

The 45-person team just returned to San Diego on Thursday after spending six days in the Houston area performing searches, providing medical aid and evaluating damaged structures.

"They train year round and maintain a high level of readiness in order to respond wherever their unique training and skills are needed," said Brian Fennessy, chief of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, which contributed 24 members. "It's important to note that their time at home may be short-lived."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency called up an 80-person configuration of the team from San Diego, and some are already on the way to Tallahassee, with more scheduled to leave Saturday, SDFRD spokeswoman Monica Munoz said.

She said the Florida team will include a mix of those who went to Houston with some new members. The team can draw from a pool of 210 firefighters from 21 agencies and organizations in the county, she said.

Irma is responsible for at least nine deaths throughout the Caribbean and battered St. Martin and the British Virgin Islands during its westward march. The National Hurricane Center downgraded Irma from a Category 5 storm, the highest level, to a still very dangerous Category 4 earlier Friday.

Around 45 Red Cross workers from San Diego and Imperial counties are deployed across Texas, Louisiana, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands, chapter spokeswoman Emily Cox said.

"Some of the people who have been in Texas and Louisiana are coming up on two weeks on the ground, so they will be brought home and new people will go to replace them," Cox said. "We also are going to be sending more to Florida over the weekend and next week."

More than 100 local Red Cross volunteers will probably be deployed over the course of the recovery, she said.

The National Weather Service has forecasted winds of 90-110 mph with gusts to 140 mph, 10-14 inches of rain with locally heavier amounts and a storm surge as high as 10 feet in Miami and other areas of southern Florida.

Officials in the state have urged residents not to underestimate the storm, saying it would be much larger than Hurricane Andrew, which pummeled Miami's southern suburbs in 1992.