Updated at 6:36 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018, with more information.
As Hurricane Florence batters the Carolina coastlines, Chattanooga area rescue and disaster relief teams are gearing up for any calls to action.
From opening evacuation shelters to forming emergency response teams and reserving utility workers for deployment, the Volunteer State is preparing to do just that — volunteer.
The Brainerd Youth & Family Development Center at 1010 North Moore Road will operate as a shelter for coastal residents fleeing the hurricane.
1010 North Moore Road
For hotel/motel availability, contact the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-322-3344.
The shelter, operated by the Hamilton County Office of Emergency Management, the American Red Cross and other organizations, opened Thursday and will remain open as long as necessary, said Julia Wright, executive director for the Red Cross' Southeast Tennessee region.
On Thursday, volunteers were setting up a small number of cots to start with, but the shelter has the ability to accommodate several hundred evacuees if necessary, and two other locations are on standby if needed, Wright said.
"Wherever is a tank of gas away is usually where people are going," she said. "That's about what they can afford. They go up, and they get to the first place, and they stop."
Pets also will have a place to stay on site, so people traveling with four-legged family members will have accommodations, as well.
"Just due to health reasons, the shelters are not allowed to have pets inside the facility," said Amy Maxwell, spokeswoman for the Hamilton County Office of Emergency Services. Pets will be housed in the vicinity in a ventilated and supervised outdoor shelter operated by the Disaster Animal Response Team.
Allowing pets on site often determines whether people evacuate, Wright said.
"They may choose to do something less desirable like sleeping in their cars or stay [home]," she said. "Having them on site, it gives a level of comfort to the families that their family unit is staying together."
For anyone looking to offer support, Wright said the best way to help is through a financial donation.
"It's the quickest way for us to get the resources to the families and get them specifically what they're needing," she said.
Donations can be made through the American Red Cross' website at redcross.org/donate or a $10 donation can be made via text message by sending FLORENCE to 90999. Donations also can be made in person at the local branch at 4115 South Access Road or by calling 423-265-3455.
"Right now is going to be a very stressful time for all of these individuals, especially not knowing what is to happen next," Maxwell said. "They know that they're going to get significant amounts of rain, but we just don't know how much these areas are going to get."
"We are the Volunteer State, so we're here to obviously volunteer and help anybody in this time of need."
An Erlanger Health System Life Force helicopter is on standby to aid with disaster relief efforts.
The hospital started prepping its aircraft on Sunday and was officially federally activated on Wednesday, said Robbie Tester, vice president of operations and program director of Life Force.
Two flight nurses, two paramedics, a pilot and a mechanic were expected to deploy to wherever they're needed most at some point on Thursday, Tester said. Then they'll be waiting the storm out until it's safe to fly in.
"Once the storm passes and the wind dies down, then they'll start moving us into the affected areas, based on what FEMA and the local emergency managers decide," he said.
He said crews have to be self-sufficient for 72 hours and be prepared to care for at least four to five patients without having to restock.
"All the crews have 'go bags' that they put together," he said. "They may be in a hotel where they're staging at, or they may be in a tent. It really just depends on the situation."
Airborne emergency response can be called to help in a variety of situations, Tester said, from evacuating hospitals and nursing homes that may be facing imminent flooding or power loss to rescuing stranded and/or injured victims.
"Since we're a critical care transport service, we're looking at those high acuity patients that may be dependent on the ventilator or have some significant injuries or illnesses that need our specialized care," he said.
Having air response teams is vital during hurricanes because of how infrastructure may be impacted through flooding or fallen trees or buildings, Tester said.
"Sometimes helicopters are the only thing that can get into those remote areas and extract patients," he said.
Life Force was called on during Hurricane Harvey last year, as well. Crews spent three weeks in Texas and completed about 20 transports, mostly moving patients from one facility to another, including a few neonatal transports for very sick babies.
The Dallas Bay Fire Department's swift water rescue teams are also on standby, Maxwell said, as well as the Hamilton County Special Tactics and Rescue Services and East Ridge Fire Department.
Nearly 200 electric utility linemen from across Tennessee are moving into place to help restore power once Florence passes over the East Coast, with more on standby.
Phillip Burgess, with the Tennessee Valley Public Power Association, said 44 linemen from various municipalities including Athens, Murfreesboro and Tullahoma have been sent to staging areas in North Carolina.
» Jackson Energy Authority has two five-man crews headed to Apex, North Carolina
» The Greeneville Electric System is sending two five-man crews to Greenville, North Carolina
» The Athens Utilities Board is sending six linemen to Greenville, North Carolina
» The Murfreesboro Electric Department has five linemen headed for Wilson, North Carolina
» The Tullahoma Utilities Board is sending three linemen to Wilson, North Carolina
» Memphis Light Gas & Water is sending two five-man crews to New Bern, North Carolina
"In addition to that, we have 62 other linemen on standby just in case additional linemen are needed," Burgess said. That includes eight from Cleveland, Tennessee.
The Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association is sending another 140 line workers from 15 electric co-ops across the state.
"Our crews have a reputation for responding quickly, working safely and showing compassion to those who have been impacted by storms like this one," association Executive Vice President and General Manager David Callis said on the co-op's website. "We commend their desire to serve and wish them well in the days to come."
That includes 10 linemen from the Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative in Jasper, Tennessee. That crew went to the Four County Electric Membership Corporation in Burgaw, North Carolina.
"This is a powerful storm, and the people of North Carolina have some tough days ahead," Sequachee Valley President and CEO Mike Partin said in a statement. "We are proud of our linemen for volunteering to assist. They will be working long days in difficult conditions, but they were quick to respond to the call for help. We ask that the public keep them and their families in your thoughts and prayers while they are away."
Burgess said there are always concerns for workers' safety after a catastrophe or natural disaster, but there is a "special relationship within public power members who always have their sister utilities' backs."
Staff writer Judy Walton contributed to this story.
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