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Nebraska Task Force 1 faces mudslides, flooding in Hurricane Fiona response

More than three days into their deployment to Puerto Rico, a search and rescue team made up of 45 Nebraskans is “doing well” as they work 12-hour reconnaissance missions near the hurricane-battered island’s capital, officials said.

Nebraska Task Force 1 — a Federal Emergency Management Agency-affiliated team made up of first responders and private citizens across the state — landed in San Juan at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning and has spent the days since searching for residents in need of rescue, Lincoln Fire and Rescue Capt. Dan Ripley said Friday morning on a conference call with Nebraska media.

Ripley, who is leading the task force on its deployment, said the team has encountered mudslides, washed out roadways, communications issues and “massive flooding” on the island in the wake of Hurricane Fiona, which made landfall last weekend and disabled the territory’s power grid.

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“If you look at Puerto Rico, and you understand its topography and terrain, it’s almost like a cone,” he said. “And when that rain or torrential hurricane-force winds and rain coupled together come, it’s gonna shed down that cone very rapidly.

“And that rapid decent of dirt, that now is mud, that rain, now that washes away trees (and) debris into the roadways and also washes out those roadways — it definitely is gonna affect the infrastructure. … It’s definitely something that has had a really big impact on the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.”

The task force, Ripley said, is “doing well” three days into its deployment, having avoided injury or any particular harrowing encounters.

Ripley, who said he didn’t have an exact number of rescues the task force has aided in so far, said communications interruptions caused by the power outage have been among the most prevalent obstacles for the team, but one they expected.

With cellphone service shoddy and the power grid reeling, Ripley said the task force had relied on satellite phones to communicate with FEMA, providing updates on progress and areas of need.

“We come prepared for disasters,” he said.

It’s unclear how long the task force, which serves at the direction of FEMA, will stay in San Juan. The task force is prepared to remain on deployment for up to 21 days.

Ripley said the team is monitoring the path of Hurricane Fiona and several tropical depressions emerging in the Atlantic that he expects to turn into hurricanes, which could make landfall elsewhere and prompt a reallocation of resources.

For now, though, the team is focused on its mission in Puerto Rico.

“From the standpoint of the task force, we hope that when we leave Puerto Rico, we have left them with a little bit of hope that they didn’t have before,” Ripley said.

“We hope that we’ve left them with an understanding that people care about them, and that we were here to help them, and that if that time of need would ever arise again, we’re more than willing to be there for them again in the future.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or

On Twitter @andrewwegley

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