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'Great amount of responsibility': Utah medical disaster response team mobilizes to Texas

SALT LAKE CITY — After 10 years of training for emergency responses to disasters, the day of action finally arrived Tuesday for a team of Utah doctors and nurses who have been asked to assist in southeastern Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

The Disaster Medical Assistance Team, based in the Beehive State and consisting of 36 members, departed for Dallas on Tuesday to provide medical care to victims of the historic hurricane in the Houston area.

Team commander Dr. Steven Bott, an anesthesiologist with University of Utah Health, said the team was formed a decade ago, but the hurricane response marks the first time the entire unit has been mobilized by the federal government.

"I didn't get my sleep last night," he told reporters. "I feel a great amount of responsibility."

Bott added that he's "very grateful" for the chance to deploy and help people in dire need, a sentiment shared by the rest of the group, he said.

"I'm super proud of these guys," Bott said, his face breaking into a gratified smile as he gestured to members of his team at Salt Lake City International Airport. "They're pretty excited to be going out."

About a dozen members of the team gathered for the same flight out Tuesday morning, while others were scheduled to take later planes. The group, clothed in official khaki uniforms, seemed to be in good spirits as it prepared to leave.

Bott gathered the group together for some brief instructions; but not much else, it seemed, needed to be said.

"I'm excited and a little bit nervous. I'm ready to help," physician assistant Billi Tsuya, of Park City, told reporters. "I hope we do (hurricane victims) justice."

Tsuya, an eight-year Army veteran, has worked in both family medicine and urgent care. She expects she will need to use skills learned from both while assisting in Texas.

The team is made up of doctors, nurses, paramedics and other emergency medical workers.

Bott said the group as of Monday morning had not received specific instructions on what it would be doing.

The team could do anything from "helping move people out of the most severely affected areas," to setting up temporary hospitals, to treating people inside convention centers crowded with evacuees, Bott said.

"Probably within 24 hours we'll have a mission assignment," he said.

The team could stay in the area for up to two weeks, according to Bott.

The response team in Utah is one of more than 50 just like it nationwide that report to the Department of Health and Human Services. Bott said about a half-dozen teams have been activated in response to Harvey.

When such units are mobilized, team members become temporary federal employees, and their regular employers are required by law to let them deploy, he said.

But that legal requirement is redundant in most cases, Bott said, because of widespread support for sending disaster relief to affected areas.

"It turns out everybody wants to chip in," he said, including affected employers and colleagues who get an extra workload.

Other Utahns belonging to response teams made up of surgeons, veterinarians, funeral directors and more are also at the federal government's disposal if needed, Bott said, adding that "the system ramps up very rapidly."

"I think the system (nationwide) is much more robust now than it was for (Hurricane) Katrina," he said of the 2005 storm.

Other Utahns also traveled to Texas to help with Harvey disaster relief for a wide range of organizations, including the Utah National Guard, federal search and rescue group Utah Task Force One, solar company Goal Zero and the American Red Cross.

Anyone interested in donating to relief efforts can visit redcross.org or call 800-HELP NOW. Texting REDCROSS to 90999 will also automatically contribute $10 to the organization's relief efforts by adding that amount to the donor's phone bill.

Donations can also be made to the Hope for Houston campaign being held by KSL-TV, KSL Newsradio, FM100.3 and 103.5 the Arrow by going online or calling 801-575-HOPE (4673) until 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.