Britain ‘will strengthen response to hurricanes in Caribbean’

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, has implied that the British government was overwhelmed by the hurricanes in the Caribbean last summer, by announcing plans to strengthen the UK response, supplying better equipped ships, a regional co-ordination centre and improving integration with other countries in the region.

The British Overseas Territories, principally the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, and Turks and Caicos Islands, have yet to recover from hurricanes Irma and Maria of 2017, and the Foreign Office is concerned that more hurricanes, even on a lesser scale compared with those of 2017, could have a devastating effect on already damaged infrastructure.

The Met Office, in the UK, is monitoring the trends and potential tracks of hurricanes around the clock, anticipating the most severe hurricanes, due August or September.

Johnson said: “We have learned important lessons from our response last year and are working to ensure an even stronger response to any hurricane this year.” The aim was to achieve clearer command and control structures, and a way to escalate a response quickly once a crisis appeared imminent. “One aim is to co-ordinate better with America, Canada, the Netherlands and France, so that each other’s assets are commonly available.”

Boris Johnson in 2017 viewing damage caused by Hurricane Irma on Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

Boris Johnson in 2017 viewing damage caused by Hurricane Irma on Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Photograph: Georgina Stubbs/PA

Officials say that the scale of the area potentially affected by hurricanes, the number of Caribbean islands and unpredictability concerning paths of hurricanes, present huge logistic challenges.

In what is described as a “no regrets approach”, the Royal Navy ship Royal Fleet Auxiliary Mounts Bay has been stationed in the Caribbean for months already, loaded with shelter kits, 1,000 collapsible jerry cans, hygiene kits and specialist engineering equipment for clearing runways, roads and ports.

Specialist staff have been sent to help island communities negotiate better commercial contracts with clearance firms, to keep costs down. A Caribbean catastrophe risk insurance fund has also been established to provide £50m in quick payouts to countries hit by hurricanes.

The Department for International Development has not yet completed negotiations to allow the Overseas Territories to be eligible once again for official development assistance. So far aid has been provided outside the main DfID aid budget.

The OECD’s development assistance committeehas agreed to look at proposals for a mechanism to reinstate aid eligibility for states and territories if they suffer a persistent drop in per capita income due to a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis.