It’s been nearly two years since Dominica found itself in the devastating direct path of Hurricane Maria. Since then, USAID has worked to help the Caribbean nation recover from the strongest hurricane to ever hit the island, and forge its own path towards self-reliance.
During the night of September 18, 2017, Hurricane Maria unleashed a catastrophic combination of wind and rain on Dominica, a small, mountainous island sandwiched between Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean Sea.
In just a few hours, Maria’s violent rain and 160-mile-per-hour winds — the strongest ever recorded on the island — devastated Dominica’s infrastructure and damaged nearly every building’s roof, including many serving as emergency shelters.
A USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) based in the Caribbean had been closely monitoring Hurricane Maria — the second Category 5 storm to hit the Caribbean in less than two weeks — and immediately sprang into action.
In the hours, days, and weeks that followed, the DART worked with local officials and the U.S. military to aggressively move relief commodities to the island, prioritizing the delivery of emergency shelter materials to help families get back into their homes. The DART also coordinated efforts to restore water and sanitation services.
As emergency needs waned and the Government of Dominica transitioned to longer-term recovery activities, a smaller team from USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance remained in the Caribbean to continue ongoing aid efforts. This team also started laying the groundwork to bolster Dominica’s self-reliance by supporting the islands’ efforts to prepare for future storms in the wake of this historic hurricane.
Preparing for future disasters
Since Hurricane Maria, one of USAID’s top priorities in Dominica has been to ensure people have a safe place to take shelter in the event of a disaster. To do this, USAID teamed up with partner the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to repair and enhance the island’s emergency shelters.
1. Rehabilitating community shelters
USAID and IOM worked with local authorities to repair emergency community shelters damaged by Hurricane Maria. In addition to fixing the shelters, we’ve made them stronger by adding improvements that help shelters to better withstand the impact of future storms. We also installed emergency communications equipment so the shelters can stay in contact with local authorities before, during, and after a disaster.
2. Pre-positioning emergency equipment and relief supplies
A proper shelter requires more than a strong building. We’ve stocked shelters throughout Dominica with emergency equipment — including solar panels, generators, flashlights, and fire extinguishers — to make sure they can operate even if electricity and other emergency services go down. The shelters are also equipped with first aid kits, wheel chairs, kitchen sets, hygiene kits, and plastic sheeting that can be quickly distributed to people in need.
3. Equipping leaders with life-saving skills
After disasters strike, neighbors are almost always the first to respond. That’s why it’s critical to equip community members and local shelter managers with tools they need to provide life-saving support. Working with IOM, we provided training in emergency preparedness, first aid and psychological support, shelter management, and evacuation procedures.
4. Raising community awareness
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Working with Dominica’s Ministry of Education, our partner IOM commissioned local artists to paint educational murals on the walls of schools that are often used as emergency shelters. With the help of student volunteers, these artists illustrated the five natural disasters that happen most often in Dominica: hurricanes, floods, landslides, volcanoes, and earthquakes. The murals also depicted life-saving tips on how to prepare and respond.
While USAID cannot stop disasters from happening, we can work to prevent or reduce the damage they cause. In the nearly two years since Hurricane Maria struck, we can see that Dominica has made great strides in strengthening the capacity of its emergency shelters, and that our investments are paying off.
Our important partnership with IOM is just one of the many ways USAID is supporting efforts throughout the Caribbean to recover from Hurricane Maria and prepare for future storms. As we continue our year-round work to help communities become more self-reliant, USAID disaster teams are also prepared for the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, ready for whatever Mother Nature throws our way.