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A Message From Secretary Chao on Hurricane Irma

Posted by US Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao

At USDOT, our hearts have been heavy with concern for everyone affected by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey.  Many of our colleagues live in the affected areas and many more have been worried about loved ones who do.  So we are connected to these communities along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast not just through our professional responsibilities, but also in deeply personal respects.    

On Labor Day, at 8:14 a.m., I received an e-mail containing the USDOT Crisis Management Center’s (CMC) Hurricane Harvey Executive Summary #21.  Two minutes later, CMC’s Executive Summary #1 for Hurricane Irma appeared in my inbox.  Irma was over 900 miles east of San Juan, Puerto Rico. 

I looked at those reports and thought about all the people in the CMC and in USDOT’s modes who had begun their hurricane-related efforts before Harvey made landfall.  Now they were mobilizing in the face of another historic storm.  There was no doubt they would perform just as effectively in response to Irma as they had with Harvey.  A strong sense of duty pervades this department and there is no greater calling than helping people in a disaster. 

By the time the Irma summary report #4 was issued the next day, USDOT’s modes were already far along in their preparations, coordinating with FEMA and local and state governments in Irma’s projected path.  Among the top priorities is facilitating transport of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel and being ready to expedite relief supplies, equipment, and personnel to aid in rescue and recovery.   And USDOT personnel deployed to several states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Search, rescue and recovery efforts are being aided by new technologies, perhaps most notably:  unmanned aerial systems (drones).  To assist Irma and Harvey efforts, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has expedited 249 waivers to enable local, state and federal agencies and other entities to use drones to inspect buildings, bridges, roadways, and railways.  Communications and other utility companies are deploying “drone crews” along with their repair crews to assess cell towers, transmission lines, ground equipment and other essential infrastructure so that people could have functioning phones and power.  Some insurance adjusters are finding that drones are far more efficient (and safer) than ladders to inspect roofs, especially in flooded areas, so hopefully claims can be processed more quickly.   

Social media was invaluable before, during and after both of these storms in helping people in and out of the disaster zone stay in touch, share information, locate functioning gas stations, shelters, lodging and organize volunteer-led rescue and recovery efforts.  This enhanced capacity for individuals to communicate is proving to be tremendously helpful in crises.

Evacuees are eager to return to their homes, everyone is anxious to get power and other essential services restored.  We at USDOT will continue to do everything we can to help.  Thanks again to all who are working hard in professional capacities, and as volunteers, to help people in the disaster areas persevere and rebuild their lives in the coming days, weeks and months.