As the lead U.S. government office responding to international disasters, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance began preparing for this year’s hurricane season long before the first tropical storm formed in the Atlantic in April. But our disaster experts never imagined they would end up riding out and responding to the devastation caused by three back-to-back hurricanes, including two Category 5 storms.
As hurricane season comes to a close on November 30, here’s a storm-by-storm look back at USAID’s unprecedented response to Hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria in the Caribbean.
“In my 17 years doing this, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” said Tim Callaghan, Team Leader of the USAID Caribbean Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), and a veteran of many disaster responses. “The devastation I’ve seen is unprecedented.”
Storm #1: Hurricane Irma makes history
Hurricane Irma — the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record — made landfall in the eastern Caribbean on September 6, leaving a trail of destruction from as far east as Barbuda, stretching all the way to Cuba.
USAID’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) deployed to the region ahead of the storm, and began conducting damage and needs assessments as soon as conditions allowed.
Once the storm had passed, USAID began airlifting critical relief supplies — including heavy-duty plastic sheeting, hygiene kits, kitchen sets, and water containers — to Antigua and Barbuda and The Bahamas from its emergency warehouse in Miami.
USAID also requested the unique capabilities of the U.S. Department of Defense to provide logistics support and water desalination services on the island of St. Martin. As a result, U.S. Southern Command stood up Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands (JTF-LI) on September 9.
JTF-LI quickly installed eight portable water desalination units, capable of producing about 3,000 gallons of water each per day.
By the end of the mission, we had produced a total of 83,020 gallons of potable water for St. Martin. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Just as we were kicking into high gear, another hurricane appeared on the horizon.
Storm #2: DART hunkers down during Hurricane Jose
Only days later, Hurricane Jose unleashed heavy rain and tropical storm force winds over the already battered Leeward Islands.
While Jose largely spared the region, relief efforts on several islands came to a temporary standstill as members of the USAID DART rode out the storm.
After Jose veered back to sea on September 10, our disaster team got back to work, all the while keeping a wary eye on the Atlantic as a third storm quickly approached.
Storm #3: Hurricane Maria deals another devastating blow
The region may have escaped Hurricane Jose’s wrath, but Hurricane Maria — which strengthened from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane in just 24 hours — would not be so kind. Maria — the second Category 5 storm to hit the Caribbean in two weeks — made landfall on September 18, unleashing its fury on the small island nation of Dominica.
As Maria approached, USAID began immediately coordinating response efforts with the Government of Dominica thanks to our local disaster expert, Cecil, who rode out the once-in-a-lifetime storm in his home outside the capital city of Roseau.
As the scope of the devastation became clear, USAID quickly deployed additional staff to support relief efforts on Dominica, as well as neighboring Martinique and Guadeloupe. The DART immediately began conducting damage assessments and aggressively airlifting relief commodities — including hygiene kits, chainsaws, kitchen sets, water containers, blankets, plastic sheeting, and chlorine to purify drinking water.
On Dominica, Hurricane Maria washed out many bridges and roads, so USAID once again requested the unique capabilities of the U.S. military
The USAID DART worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. Department of Defense to ensure these items were strategically distributed to communities cut off by the storm.
By the end of its successful three-and-a-half week mission, the U.S. military flew a total of 55 humanitarian missions and delivered 155 metric tons of relief supplies.
Because Hurricanes Irma and Maria blew the roofs off so many homes, USAID prioritized the delivery of heavy-duty plastic sheeting to be cut and distributed to affected families. In fact, we airlifted enough plastic sheeting to go around New York City almost one-and-a-half times! On Dominica, members of our DART even made house calls, showing folks how to properly use the materials to protect their homes.
“This disaster was a roofing crisis,” said DART Leader Tim Callaghan. “Everywhere I looked, I saw roofs torn off buildings, leaving people and their belongings exposed to the elements.”
Marathon hurricane season comes to an end
As this year’s hurricane season draws to a close, USAID has also drawn down its emergency response, and is now supporting affected communities as they begin early recovery efforts.
By the end of its month-long response in the Caribbean, USAID had deployed 54 people to 11 locations to help save lives. In addition, USAID airlifted more than 185 metric tons of relief supplies, which are helping up to 83,800 people.
As we look towards 2018, we’re already restocking our warehouses and pre-positioning supplies around the region, because as Mother Nature showed us, you can never be too prepared!