Hurricane Irma: MPs say UK’s response ‘lacked structure’

Destruction in Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

Britain’s overseas territories should have been better supported in the wake of devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean last year, MPs have said.

The Foreign Affairs Committee said there was a “regrettable” lack of an international disaster relief strategy when storms struck last September.

Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos were caught in a trail of devastation left by Irma.

Ministers said they had learnt lessons and would be better prepared in future.

The UK’s immediate response to Irma and to Hurricane Maria, which ravaged much of the Commonwealth island of Dominica, was criticised at the time – with France and the Netherlands deploying troops more quickly to their overseas territories in the region.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Mounts Bay – which had been stationed in the region since July – arrived in Anguilla two days after the storm made landfall, bringing humanitarian supplies and disaster relief teams.

However it was another two weeks before a joint military task force on the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean reached the region.

The cross-party committee said that while the deployment of Mounts Bay was welcome, the disaster had shown the need for an over-arching international disaster relief strategy for the region.

“While we welcome the FCO launching an exercise to identify regional and international assets that could be used in response to major natural disasters in future, it is regrettable that this had not been done previously as part of wider crisis planning,” the MPs said.

“Given the Caribbean’s vulnerability to hurricanes we would have expected the FCO already to have had a good understanding of the resources available and an agreed collaborative international strategy in place.”

The MPs expressed concerns that the government’s ability to respond to future natural disasters could be affected by any further cuts to the Royal Navy.

‘Agreed strategy’

With HMS Ocean being withdrawn from service, the committee said the FCO should ensure the needs of the overseas territories were taken into account in any decisions regarding the future of the navy and that assets were dedicated to the disaster response role.

“Ministers need to offer the UK’s overseas territories a more structured response in any such future event,” said the committee’s chair, Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat.

“The overseas territories in the Caribbean were known to be vulnerable to the risk of hurricanes. With six territories in relatively close proximity, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should have an agreed, collaborative, international strategy ready to go.”

The Foreign Office said the disaster was one of the most complex challenges it had faced in modern times.

“The destructive force of hurricanes Irma and Maria was unprecedented,” a spokeswoman said.

“We have looked back at our response and drawn on the lessons learned to bring in improvements to our approach to managing catastrophic events in UK Overseas Territories.

“An inter-ministerial group has been established to ensure sustained recovery and reconstruction response and we are working closely with territory governments to better prepare for the coming hurricane season.”