Caribbean hurricanes ‘a learning experience’
Britain learnt lessons from its much criticised 2017 Caribbean hurricane response and is better prepared for the next storm season, the Minister for the Overseas Territories has promised.
Lord Ahmad suffered a baptism of fire in his first year in the job at the Foreign Office when Category 5 storms Irma and Maria devastated parts of the region.
The Conservative peer, who is also Minister of State for the Commonwealth and United Nations, said he expected the OTs to be “the quiet bit of my portfolio — never have I been so wrong”.
He added that he remembered the moment he realised the horrific power of hurricanes while on a visit to the Pacific Islands Forum in Samoa in September 2017.
Lord Ahmad said: “I got a call on my mobile from Gus Jaspert, who's the Governor in the British Virgin Islands.
“Gus called me just as half the roof of Government House was blown off. There and then, I realised how, at a stroke, these hurricanes can impact small island states.”
The BVI, as well as other UK territories Anguilla and the Turks & Caicos Islands, were badly hit.
The territories later complained about the speed and effectiveness of Britain's response.
The UK's Foreign Affairs Committee in March last year concluded that there had been a “regrettable” lack of an international disaster relief strategy.
But Lord Ahmad said the British response had been fast and efficient.
He added: “There were criticisms, which were totally unfounded. We had the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Mounts Bay in Anguilla within 12 hours of the hurricane hitting. Then it moved on to the BVI.”
He added that several British government departments including the Ministry of Defence, Foreign Office and Department for International Development were all engaged to help out on the Prime Minister's orders.
Lord Ahmad said: “We learnt from the response. While I was pleased with the response, you never rest on your laurels. There's always more to be done.
“For example, last year we were in constant engagement with the French and the Dutch, who have interests in the region, the Americans, the independent Caribbean, and the Canadians.
“We convened a meeting in July last year of senior officials from those countries in London. The whole point was who has what equity, asset, capability, expertise, who has what insight and resource, so we can act in a collective fashion.
“That resonated very strongly. We also took some practical action, like sourcing materials before they were needed. We had retainers with private sector companies to ensure that certain materials that would be needed in the event of a hurricane would be readily available and booked.
“Those are some practical insights into how we were prepared last year and that has continued this year.”
Lord Ahmad said he remembered the spirit of togetherness in the wake of the 2017 storms among the peoples of the worst-affected islands and also among the other OTs.
He added he had landed on Grand Turk, which “looked like a scene out of the Second World War”.
Lord Ahmad said: “I remember landing there and being greeted by members of the Royal Bermuda Regiment and the Premier was full of praise. Cayman responded by sending their helicopter.
“I think that human spirit of everyone coming together was something we needed to galvanise and we did just that.”
He added: “We stood with our territories. I remember our Foreign Secretary at the time, Boris Johnson, saying the words, ‘The Overseas Territories are British'.
“It was a simple, yet very poignant message. That sense of being cared about and thought about at a time of tragedy is very important.”
Lord Ahmad said the British effort was designed to make sure that government services were up and running as soon as possible after a storm.
He added: “There's still work to be done, but we are hopeful that we can have the resources and the response ready in the region to ensure that if a hurricane hits again, we can respond even more effectively and efficiently”.
Britain last year made its disaster recovery team aboard Mounts Bay visible across the region.
The ship made visits to several territories and that will be repeated this year.
Lord Ahmad said: “That gave people comfort to know that there are people out there, who are around and they're ready.”