By Tim Callaghan
As another Atlantic hurricane season approaches, we are reminded that it takes just one bad storm to wreak havoc, kill and injure thousands, and inflict billions of dollars in damage. That’s why USAID—through its Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance—prepares year-round with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to ensure emergency and evacuation plans are in place and hurricane-prone communities are ready. Here are five ways USAID is helping prepare our neighbors to meet the demands of hurricane season:
1.) The Wall of Wind: Did you know there is a place in Miami, Fla., where deadly, hurricane force winds can be felt without the threat of destruction? It’s called the Wall of Wind, a cutting-edge lab at Florida International University that simulates Category Five hurricane conditions using 12 giant fans, generating winds with speeds exceeding 150 miles per hour. It’s here that USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance tests the strength and design of the transitional shelters we use to help provide a temporary home to those who have been hit hard by disasters. Hurricanes can be catastrophic, taking out entire coastlines and killing thousands in the process. Flying debris, often from pieces of roofs and homes, is one of the most deadly and destructive side effects of these storms. That’s why it’s crucial that transitional shelters are strong enough to withstand nature’s worst.
2.) Scientific Advanced Warning Systems: Flash floods are the number one weather-related killer and the most fatal aspect of hurricanes. When they occur, excess water caused by heavy and rapid rainfall cannot be quickly absorbed into the earth—and this fast-moving water can be extremely powerful, reaching heights of more than 30 feet. It takes only six inches of flash flood water to knock a person to the ground and only 18 inches to float a moving car. Even though the onset of flash floods is almost immediate, it is possible to give up to a six hour window of advanced notice—just enough time to save lives. USAID works closely with meteorological experts in hurricane-prone countries, training them on the Flash Flood Guidance System, a scientific method of accumulating rainfall data and analyzing the rate at which the ground absorbs it. This system saves lives, giving disaster-prone countries crucial hours before a flash flood hits to implement emergency plans and move as many people as possible out of harm’s way.
3.) Emergency Stockpiles and Disaster Experts: USAID has strategically located warehouses in Miami; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Pisa, Italy, that are filled with essential relief items, such as emergency shelter materials, warm blankets, water treatment systems, and hygiene kits. We have the ability to charter aircraft to deliver these life-saving items quickly to those hit hard by hurricanes across Latin America and the Caribbean. But arguably, the most vital resource USAID has is its people. The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance staffs a regional office in San Jose, Costa Rica, and a program office in Haiti with a total of five regional advisors and three program officers, and maintains a consultant network of 20 disaster risk management specialists dispersed throughout the region who are ready to jump into action when a hurricane makes landfall. When we know a storm is coming, we can pre-position staff to be on the ground to assess immediate needs. In addition, approximately 350 on-call local consultants are available for short-term activation in response to disasters, as needed. These consultants live in the region, so they know the culture and local officials, and can quickly report the conditions on the ground to help USAID prioritize humanitarian needs.
4.) Donating Smart: Preparing your family and home for hurricanes is important—but what about preparing yourself to assist others? We work closely with USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information to educate the public on the best and most effective ways to help others during a hurricane. When there is a disaster overseas, many people begin to collect clothing, canned food and bottled water for survivors. While well-intended, many of these items actually remain in the United States because of the high fees and cost required to transport the donated goods to a foreign country. Other items are turned away at their destination because they are not tied to a response organization that would be responsible for handling and delivering them or are deemed inappropriate according to the laws and customs of the region. Undoubtedly the least time-consuming and most cost-effective way to help others is through monetary donations to organizations that are established and operating in the affected countries. These donations enable relief workers to respond to the evolving needs of those affected by hurricanes, from immediate life-saving assistance to eventually helping them rebuild their communities. Still not convinced that donating money during a disaster is the best way to help?
5.) Rap Music and Dance: Yes, you read that right. USAID works in some of the most marginalized neighborhoods across the Caribbean to channel the energy and creativity from at-risk youth to transform them into disaster preparedness leaders. The Youth Emergency Action Committees program led by our partner, Catholic Relief Services, is one that teaches young people how to plan for and respond to hurricanes, administer first aid, map out evacuation routes and set up emergency shelters. Teens write music, create skits, and perform them to raise awareness in their communities about disaster preparedness while simultaneously learning life-saving skills. Rap music, in particular, has been a big hit! The program, which started in some of the most hazard-prone and marginalized neighborhoods of inner-city Kingston, Jamaica, has been so successful that it’s expanded to the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and Grenada.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Tim Callaghan is the Senior Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean, Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance