SEP, 2017

Caribbean hurricane season: tackling the aftermath of Irma

Every year the Caribbean experiences its Hurricane season. In August 2017 Hurricane Irma, which started near the Cape Verde Islands, was officially classed as a Category 3 Hurricane. By 4th September, as it crossed the Atlantic headed for the Caribbean, it became a Category 5.  So, in addition to a Royal Naval vessel pre-positioned in the region, the British government decided to add to their existing relief efforts by sending 1,000 soldiers and marines at very short notice to the region to help with repair and maintaining order.

On the 7th September I was in rural Devon, on a period of leave which had been delayed until after the summer due to having previously been deployed to Somalia in August. I was staying on a farm which barely had any phone signal. But, there was enough to take one phone call, from an unknown number which I nearly didn’t answer. After days of rumour and murmur, I learned the Army was going to the Caribbean; was completely committed, and therefore I needed to be at RAF Brize Norton as soon as possible. By the time I’d gotten home, packed my kit, had a cheeky hour’s sleep and then gotten to the terminal, it was pushing 0200 on the 8th. All the troops were already here, the planes were being packed, and we were definitely going.

Fast forward two days later and after a few higher priority air moves, the plane I’m on screeches to a halt on the runway in Barbados. It is raining and it is humid. I learn the situation, which is that the British are to set up a headquarters here in Barbados from which aircraft will fly to the three most affected British territories: the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and Turks and Caicos.

I was assigned to Anguilla – an autonomous island with an appointed governor who acts as the Queen’s representative. The island was ravaged and weather-beaten, but essentially OK. Dry, dead brush land covered the whole island. It was hard to imagine it lush, green, and thick – the foliage would take many seasons to grow back to its former state. My team and I were told there had been one death on the island as a result of the Hurricane, but otherwise people were relatively stable. Power was down, pylons lying across roads, and the islands clean water supply was starting to run low, but with UK aid concentrating on key infrastructure and the local population rebuilding on their own property, the impetus to adapt and overcome was plain to see. The Anguillan population experience hurricanes every year. Although this was the largest one they’d seen for a generation, the basic resilience and positive attitude required to get on with the re-building efforts ran deep. Most were in good spirits and chomping at the bit to get repairs underway. Mobile phone masts started to work and the Army was involved in distributing aid packages to those most affected. I helped unload one of the Red Cross vessels – it took three days to pack full of supplies, water, and toiletries in Barbados; two days later, arriving in Anguilla, it took us a grand total of three hours to unload and get onto pallets ready for distribution. It was rewarding to look the locals in the eye, shake hands, and exchange jokes as we unloaded their aid: it was a far cry from the detached and politically-charged operations I had been involved with in the past. In addition we interviewed the military medics, engineers, and marines who were all here at the drop of a hat and who all saw the absolute good in what they were achieving here. These interviewees spoke of humanity, responsibility, and loss – and no one was not affected by what they witnessed. We helped rebuild the island’s hospital roof and clear a school of debris. The deployment wasn’t without its PR moments though – I was amongst the few soldiers to meet Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson when he visited the Island’s Governor amidst (untrue) reports back home of a lacklustre relief effort by the UK Government.

Returning to Barbados after Hurricane Irma had passed, it was clear that the seasonal storms do affect all of the Caribbean – the island was battered, wet and relentlessly windy. The beaches were also out of bounds due to the rip currents. The rapid influx of people from the UK meant we were all sheltered under a temporary marquee style tent with detachable sides, sleeping on camping beds, fighting a constant battle to keep our bags and camera gear dry. Luckily we were only around for a few days before we climbed back onto a Hercules, this time bound for Turks and Caicos near Florida to help with preparations for Hurricane Maria – the successor to Irma – which we were live-tracking the progress of in expectation.

Luckily, Turks and Caicos was the least affected of all the British territories. The existing engineers on the island had pre-positioned us in a sturdy concrete building  – our HQ from which to wait for Maria to arrive. Although it shared Category 5 status with Irma, its trajectory changed as it neared Turks and Caicos, swinging north into the Atlantic and causing only relatively minor damage to these islands. The primarily vacation-orientated destination for wealthy Americans had dodged a hurricane-shaped bullet this time. After helping to assess and compile a ‘to do list’ for the engineers to tackle in the rather damp wake of Maria, our time was up. Once again on this deployment we lay waiting for the RAF on the deep black tarmac of an unfamiliar airstrip – one of many I had been on this year, heading back to Barbados for this, the final time.

It was a little over three weeks since I took that phone call in Devon. But by now the urgency of the situation had passed, and it was time for the Foreign Office to take the lead in the longer term and co-ordinate British government movements in the region without the immediate help given by the military. After a few days waiting on any possible future tasks from the Headquarters, I had my details checked at the Barbadon military air terminal, boarded the RAF C-130, and strapped myself into the seat. Just as quickly as I had arrived on these islands, I found myself back on British soil, as if it had almost all been a dream.