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Two hundred Royal Marines were scrambled to the Caribbean today as Britain stepped up the rescue mission for islands ripped apart by Hurricane Irma.
A state of emergency was declared in the British Virgin Islands early today and the Category Five storm barrelled across the low-lying Turks and Caicos islands this morning.
At least 87,000 British nationals, including holidaymakers and residents, were believed to have been on four islands lashed by the hurricane. One of the worst storms to hit the region for a century, it left a trail of devastation and at least 14 dead, with fears that the casualty toll could rise sharply.
The UK was racing to deliver aid to its stricken overseas territories amid claims that France and the Netherlands have been quicker to support their dependencies.
Two planes, a C17 and a Voyager, were flying from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, carrying around 200 Royal Marines, engineers and life-saving equipment destined for the British Virgin Islands.
Navy ship the RFA Mounts Bay was also sailing towards the islands amid fears that they have been even harder hit than Anguilla, where British military teams worked to reopen the airport so aid could be flown in.
Thousands of Britons on holiday, or visiting friends and family, in the Caribbean were caught up in the catastrophe. With phone masts brought down on several islands, many have been unable to contact relatives in the UK, raising fears over their safety.
British Virgin Islands governor Gus Jaspert declared a state of emergency, with roads impassable and rescue services unable to reach some areas. “We are aiming to provide some level of access to communities while we wait for help,” he said. “Please keep off the roads unless absolutely necessary to allow access to emergency services. International assistance has been requested from the United Kingdom.”
There are more than 40 islands with over 30,000 residents.
Briton Emily Killhoury, who lives on the isle of Tortola with her husband Michael and their two young children, told how Irma struck. “Our downstairs doors suddenly blew out, which was terrifying. We just stayed hiding,” she said. “We eventually emerged at about 7pm to see total devastation. Everybody is shocked, but trying to be practical.”
Dan Perkins, who is helping to run a Facebook page co-ordinating the search for missing Britons in the Virgin Islands, told Sky News: “There are hundreds of people who are yet to check in and confirm they are safe.
“We are hoping, in the vast majority of cases. that is because they don’t have telephone reception. But even those who are safe are in appalling conditions on the ground… they are in desperate need of shelter and supplies.”
Fergus Thomas, a humanitarian adviser at the Department for International Development, said: “The British Virgin Islands, which as far as we know, have been majorly, catastrophically hit.”
The Turks and Caicos islands’ government declared a national shutdown.
Around 35,000 British nationals are understood to live on the islands, a further 15,000 on Anguilla and 5,000 on Montserrat.
The storm, the size of France and with winds of up to 185mph, also soaked the northern coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti as it headed towards Florida. where a mass evacuation of residents was under way. With communities across several islands including Barbuda flattened by Irma, the Caribbean was already bracing itself for another major hurricane, Jose, now a Category Three storm and due in the north-eastern Caribbean on Saturday.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Scotland said: “People talk about the existential threat of climate change as if it’s not real — this is real — if you look at what happens to Barbuda, having a hurricane wipe out everything on your island. That is the existential threat.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned: “There are now further storms moving in. Hurricane Jose. We have sent, as you know, RFA Monts Bay which will be moving from Anguila to the British Virgin Islands later on this morning to distribute humanitarian aid there. We’ve announced a £32 million aid package for the area. We’re sending a Foreign Office team as well as DFID teams and UK troops.”
Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon was due to chair another meeting of Whitehall’s emergency Cobra committee this afternoon. HMS Ocean was also heading for the region and the Foreign Office set up a hotline for those worried about relatives or friends in the Caribbean on 0207 008 0000.
London News & Search