Tuesday 16 July 2019

Hurricane Irma: Relief efforts under way as new storm threatens Caribbean

Soldiers board a Royal Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, before they are flown to help out in the areas hit by Hurricane Irma
Soldiers board a Royal Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, before they are flown to help out in the areas hit by Hurricane Irma
Irma wreaks destruction on St Martin (Jonathan Falwell/AP)

Relief efforts are under way on islands devastated by Hurricane Irma, as a second "extremely dangerous" storm threatens the Caribbean.

Some already-ravaged areas are preparing for further possible damage as Hurricane Jose, which has been upgraded to category four, travels through the Atlantic.

Medical supplies and other aid are being flown from the UK to the areas worst affected by Irma, following a £32 million pledge from the British Government.

The government of the Turks and Caicos Islands, which were "pummelled" overnight, declared a national shutdown as the hurricane continued its destructive path towards America.

The death toll from Irma has risen to 20 with four more people believed to have died on the British Virgin Islands, it is reported.

US President Donald Trump warned Americans in Irma's path to "get out of its way".

He tweeted: " Hurricane Irma is of epic proportion, perhaps bigger than we have ever seen. Be safe and get out of its way, if possible."

The National Hurricane Centre said the storm is likely to move near the north coast of Cuba and central Bahamas on Friday and Saturday, and approach Florida by Sunday.

Life-threatening wind, rain and a storm surge are expected in the Turks and Caicos Islands into Saturday.

Forecasters said Hurricane Jose could affect already-hit areas with the British Virgin Islands on tropical storm watch, and the Commonwealth islands of Barbuda and Antigua and British territory of Anguilla on hurricane watch.

The British Virgin Islands, which saw houses reduced to their foundations and many roads impassable in the wake of Irma, has already declared a state of emergency.

Images posted on social media showed entire structures razed to the ground, with debris scattered across the streets.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said aircraft carrying around 230 personnel, made up of engineers, marines and medical specialists, will take rations and medical supplies to places affected including Barbados and the British Virgin Islands.

Officials said it has been difficult to gauge the extent of the damage due to communication lines coming down, but the Department for International Development (Dfid), which is co-ordinating aid, has sent advisers to Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica to assess the wreckage.

A spokeswoman for the department said people are being evacuated from Barbuda to Antigua in advance of Hurricane Jose hitting.

There has been criticism of the Government's response to Irma, the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the Atlantic, with some saying more should have been done to prepare for the devastation.

Labour MP Virendra Sharma, who sits on the International Development Committee, said there had been a "lack of vision and lack of proper response", despite indications the hurricane was coming.

Theresa May's spokeswoman dismissed criticism that the UK lagged behind France and the Netherlands in taking care of its territories in the path of the hurricane.

The spokeswoman told a Westminster briefing: "We believe our response was swift. We had a ship pre-positioned. We are getting lifesaving aid now to those who need it."

The spokeswoman, who said the Government was waiting for "a full picture of intelligence to come through", added: "Three flights departed this morning carrying marines and engineers as part of the MoD task force."

RFA Mounts Bay has helped to restore power and communications as well as clear the airport runway in Anguilla, and will next provide relief in the British Virgin Islands, Dfid said.

Other aid being sent includes 10,000 buckets and 5,000 solar lanterns.

Buckingham Palace said the Queen will be making a significant personal donation to the Hurricane Irma appeal organised by the British Red Cross.

Irma was first classified as a tropical storm on August 30 and rapidly intensified over the following days.

Winds reached a peak of 130mph but soon became the strongest for more than a decade when sustained winds peaked at 185mph.

Thousands of British tourists believed to be in the Caribbean have been warned to follow evacuation orders while some have been advised to stay in their hotel rooms.

Holiday firms said they are monitoring the situation and some have cancelled flights or offered to amend bookings for those due to travel to affected areas in the coming days.

In Fort Lauderdale, Erik Petersen, 40, described the atmosphere as "pretty tense" - adding that there was much more worry than last year, when the Sunshine State braced itself for Hurricane Matthew.

The dual American-British citizen told the Press Association: "People aren't just talking about this as a hurricane, they're talking about it as the hurricane.

"I've had a few people ask if I'm considering going somewhere else in Florida, but this thing's the size of Texas. Roads are clogged, hotels are full, gas is running low.

"I'd rather face this thing in a house in Fort Lauderdale than in a car in a traffic jam somewhere outside Orlando."

Mr Petersen, who lived in the UK for 11 years and most recently called Nottingham his home city, is riding out the storm with his wife Jo, 36, and their six-year-old daughter Anya.

The Foreign Office has set up a hotline for people affected by the disaster and for people whose loved ones may be affected, on 020 7008 0000.

Speaking after a meeting of the Government's emergency Cobra committee, Mrs May said she had spoken to governors from British territories overseas.

She said: "Our military personnel, our troops, have been working round the clock there and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

"Troops from RFA Mounts Bay are now assisting the Governor of the British Virgin Islands, who has declared a state of emergency there and they are also working to ensure the airfield there is serviceable so military aircraft can be flown in with further supplies.

"Every effort is being made to ensure that what can be done, as much as possible, can be done in advance of Hurricane Jose, which is the next hurricane to reach that area."

She added that the Cobra meeting had also heard from the consul general in Miami to be updated on the support being given to British nationals and tourists in the Sunshine State.

The Government is working with the US authorities to ensure "everything can be done" before the storm arrives, she said.

British military support will also be provided to the French relief efforts following a request from their government.

The Prime Minister also sought to give assurances to the British territories that the Government's support would include a focus on long-term rebuilding.

She said: "I give them this commitment - I recognise that our immediate concern is ensuring the support is there and every effort is there as this hurricane is devastating these islands, but at the Cobra today I also ensured that a piece of work was being put in place, already started, on long-term planning."

Dfid said 20 tonnes of emergency supplies were currently being transported to the Caribbean.

This includes 2.2 tonnes of shelter kits on board an RAF plane bound for Barbados, which took off from RAF Brize Norton on Friday.

A further 10,000 aid buckets, containing kit to help wash clothes, and 5,000 solar lanterns were loaded onto three trucks at Kemble Airfield in Gloucestershire.

They will take the 19-tonne cargo to either HMS Ocean or aircraft for the final journey to the Atlantic.

PA Media

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News