Overseas territories praised, UK government grilled over Irma response

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Sir Alan Duncan answers questions in the House of Commons on the UK response after Irma.

LONDON, England (CNS) — While the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) were praised in the House of Commons in London on Tuesday for the swift aid given to those BOTs impacted by Hurricane Irma, the British government faced criticism over the speed of its own response, as well as questions concerning long-term planning for its territories in the face of climate change and the prospect of future catastrophic hurricanes in the region.

Sir Alan Duncan, minister for Europe and the Americas, defended Britain’s action in the aftermath of the hurricane, as several MPs claimed that it was inferior to that given by the other governments to their own territories, that they had less in place to help in the aftermath and were slower in evacuating British citizens out of desperate situations.

The Royal Navy ship RFA Mounts Bay, which recently tested its disaster recovery response on Grand Cayman by landing heavy equipment and supplies directly on a beach, was in the Caribbean to provide a rapid response to any emergency.

However, Stephen Twigg, MP for Liverpool, said it was “unable to land heavy equipment on Anguilla because they could not use the docks or the beach”.

He added, “More broadly, we were less well prepared on the ground than both the French and the Dutch. For example, there was no stored equipment such as water, tents and generators on land, whereas such equipment was stored by those other countries.”

Toby Perkins, MP for Chesterfield, said that “the scale of the UK’s response does not in any way meet the size of the disaster that has befallen those people, for whom we have a responsibility”.

“There is real concern about the lack of preparedness by the UK Government in responding to the hurricane,” said Chris Law, MP for Dundee West. “The severity of Hurricane Irma had been predicted and there was time to prepare, but the UK government did not do so.”

Duncan defended the use of the Navy ship, noting that its crew “got the power in the hospital going again and delivered supplies” in Anguilla. They also worked to get the airport operational again before the ship went on to help the British Virgin Islands. The ship’s helicopter was used to drop “a significant amount of water and food” on Jost van Dyke island in the BVI “and has done an enormous amount to prioritise the need that we are addressing”.

In addition to the Mounts Bay, HMS Ocean, “the flagship of the Royal Navy”, is to leave the Mediterranean “and steam westwards with all speed”, he told the Commons on Tuesday. “HMS Ocean loaded supplies in Gibraltar yesterday and will be active in the Caribbean in about ten days.”

Addressing observations that other governments already had troops and assets on the ground in the Caribbean ready to help and suggestions that Britain should also have a permanent naval base in one of the BOTs, Sir Alan indicated that this may not be possible because of the different form of governance. For example the French govern their overseas territories directly, whereas BOTs are self-governed, he noted.

“But if they are there, depending on where the hurricane goes, they may not necessarily be in the right place, and some of their assets which they hoped would help may have been destroyed. Our flexible naval deployment is the best way of helping people in response to a hurricane when we know pretty well only at the last minute exactly where the force of the hurricane is going to hit.”

Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South and Finsbury, said that “as we talk about the need to help the governments of the overseas territories, and we hear the reassurances from the minister and his colleagues that they are in it for the long term, we have to ask what that means. It cannot mean simply cleaning up the damage that has been done, giving people new homes and new livelihoods, and hoping that this will last for a few years until the next hurricane strikes. That is not fixing things for the long term; it is just patching things up until next time.”

She continued, “With climate change making such hurricanes more intense and more frequent and showing no signs of slowing down, we urgently need a long-term plan for the overseas territories — a plan that is built around resilience and sustainability.”

Duncan agreed. “In the face of growing severe weather incidents, it is important to build resilience and proper defences into the infrastructure wherever possible, but the infrastructure in a lot of these overseas territories is very flimsy, very small and very vulnerable,” he said. “Perhaps the silver lining in the cloud is that where so much has been swept away, when things are rebuilt they will be better able to withstand the ferocity of the sort of hurricane that we have seen over the past week.”

Sir Henry Bellingham, a former overseas territories minister, suggested “a comprehensive, five-year reconstruction package”.

Henry Smith, MP for Crawley heaped praise on those BOTs that immediately sprung into action to help the islands that were impacted by the hurricane. “Will the minister join me in paying tribute to the British Overseas Territories that have been helping each other to recover from this crisis? For example, later today a relief flight with the premier of the Cayman Islands on it will go from that territory to Anguilla with medical supplies, and it will evacuate Anguillans to the Cayman Islands for support.”

Duncan said that Smith was “absolutely right. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands have been helpful, and the government of Gibraltar, where I was at the weekend, are going to put some very helpful vehicles on to HMS Ocean. The spirit of mutual help from overseas territories and Commonwealth countries — indeed, from all countries — is commendable.”

Republished with permission of Cayman News Service

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