CHANTILLY, Va. - Virginia Task Force 1 has returned home from the Caribbean after a three-week mission to help survivors of both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.
The task force was deployed in early September ahead of the hurricane and primarily worked in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"To the people of #PuertoRico and #USVI: we saw your strength and resolve after these two storms. Wishing the best in your ongoing recovery," Virginia Task Force 1 wrote on its official Twitter page.
Eighty members and four K-9 dogs landed at Dulles International Airport Monday night and arrived in Chantilly to cheers by their waiting families and colleagues just after 8:30 p.m. The urban search and rescue team is made up of members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.
"There was hopping from island to island," said Virginia Task Force 1 Battalion Chief Mike Schaff. "Once you got there, the roads there aren't like roads we have here in the U.S. where you get an address and you drive to it. You have to know somebody who knows where that is. So we relied on the locals to take us to the places that were most devastated to find those people we need. A lot of reuniting we did for people. We were able to find people, evacuate people, make a couple of rescues out of people that have been stranded in areas where they were and didn't have any help.
The search dogs were a huge help during their rescue efforts.
"They can do a lot quicker search than we can," said Schaff. "Once they find an area that looks like it needs a search, we can send a dog in there. They can kind of help determine whether we engage forces deeper there or whether we move on. They are a great comfort to the people when they are not working, to the little kids that have lost a lot or maybe have lost a parent. The dogs, when they are not out there working, but they are able to stand on the corners and their handlers let them kind of be a therapy dog, that makes a big difference to the kids sometimes."
Task force members had to leave their cell phones behind so they could focus on the mission. That meant they had limited contact with their families.
Virginia Task Force 1 also helped during Hurricane Harvey in Houston and had to quickly remobilize to help the victims affected in the Caribbean.