The Caribbean is one of the most hurricane-prone regions in the world, killing people every year and making communities more vulnerable with each and every storm that hits. But it wasn’t a hurricane that put Yen Carlos Reyes at risk.

Reyes’s father dealt drugs in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Dominican Republic and rival gang members routinely raided his home. His mother abandoned Reyes, leaving him to bounce around from one relative’s house to another.  At age 17, he was a street fighter in the Dominican Republic, headed for jail—or worse.

Reyes’ story is one that resonates with many youth across the islands, where a lack of opportunities leads teens to partake in the crime and violence that plagues their communities. But now, in some of the toughest neighborhoods across the Caribbean, the energy and creativity of at-risk youth are being channeled to help them make the leap from neighborhood trouble-maker to community life saver.

St Patricks Rangers a voluntary youth club in Jamaica

Members of the St. Patrick’s Rangers, a voluntary youth club in Jamaica, engage in a map reading session through a disaster preparedness program led by USAID’s partner, Catholic Relief Services. Photo Credit: Catholic Relief Services

The Youth Emergency Action Committees (YEAC) program led by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) with support from USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) is one that transforms teens like Reyes into disaster-preparedness leaders. It teaches young people how to plan for and respond to hurricanes, administer first aid, map out evacuation routes and set up emergency shelters. In dedicating himself to the program, Reyes just may have saved his own life.

Started in September 2009 in four of the most hazard-prone and marginalized neighborhoods of inner-city Kingston, Jamaica, CRS began engaging youth through an ‘edutainment’ approach—education plus entertainment. Teens write music, create skits, and perform them to raise community awareness about disaster preparedness while simultaneously learning life-saving skills. Rap music, in particular, has been a big hit, with the group  coming up with lyrics such as, “Send in the broom and the shovel. Don’t bring the violence, please leave the trouble.” Because the program was so successful, CRS expanded it to the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia and Grenada.

Reyes says his priorities shifted and his life changed when he joined YEAC. With his teammates, Reyes helped build new homes and rehabilitate old ones for families whose houses were not able to withstand natural disasters. When Hurricane Sandy hit Puerto Plata, Reyes and the others on his committee—named El Esquadron, or the Squadron—were ready, helping to relocate 80 families to emergency shelter and implementing a disaster response plan for their community.  Reyes says he has a whole new set of goals including going back to school, thanks to the confidence YEAC has given him.

“Little by little, I started to see that I had value and that the other kids weren’t judging me. The work we did within the communities made me feel like I had something to offer and I started to see that my neighbors were looking at me different too,” said Reyes.

Watch this video for an in-depth look on how the program made a positive impact in Jamaica.

Top forecasters are anticipating a busy 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, with the National Hurricane Center on May 23 predicting that 13 to 20 named storms will develop this year, with 7 to 11 of the systems expected to become hurricanes.

Plastic sheeting provided by USAID gives much needed shelter to a family in Nicaragua following a destructive hurricane in 2007.

Plastic sheeting provided by USAID gives much needed shelter to a family in Nicaragua following a destructive hurricane in 2007. Photo Credit: Alejandro Torres/USAID

No matter how accurate the forecast turns out to be, Hurricane Sandy taught us that it only takes one major storm to kill more than 70 people in this country, injure hundreds of others, and inflict billions of dollars in damages.  If one hurricane could do so much damage the U.S., imagine the impact of similar storms on less developed countries.

USAID is prepared to meet the demands of an active hurricane season.  All year, experts with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) have been working closely with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean to make sure emergency and evacuation plans are in place.  USAID has emergency stockpiles in Miami, including medical supplies, hygiene kits, shelter materials, and water purification equipment. We have the ability to charter planes in eight different countries to deliver these life-saving items quickly to countries hit hard by hurricanes.  When we know a storm is coming, we can pre-position staff and relief supplies to provide immediate assistance.

But arguably, the most vital resource USAID has is its people.  In addition to the 25 disaster experts USAID/OFDA has in the region, there are also about 350 consultants in 28 countries who can immediately jump into the action when a hurricane makes landfall. These consultants live in the region, so they know the country, culture and local officials and can quickly report the conditions on the ground and help USAID prioritize humanitarian needs.

USAID airlifted emergency relief supplies to the Bahamas when Hurricane Irene made landfall in 2011.

USAID airlifted emergency relief supplies to the Bahamas when Hurricane Irene made landfall in 2011. Photo Credit: USAID

“They are our eyes and ears, and they allow USAID to be fast, aggressive and robust in a disaster response,” said Tim Callaghan, USAID/OFDA’s Principal Regional Advisor in Latin America and the Caribbean.  “They work to save lives and alleviate suffering.”

All this week, we will be highlighting what USAID and its partners are doing in preparation for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, from protecting people from deadly flash floods to teaching children in Jamaica to become the next generation of disaster experts.

Hurricane Preparedness Week is May 26 through June 1, following the official forecast for the upcoming Atlantic hurricane season. This week, USAID is highlighting the work we do to help disaster-prone countries prepare for and recover from hurricanes.