Hurricane Irma and Maria
In late August 2017, a tropical storm, Irma, formed in the east Atlantic, rapidly strengthening and heading towards the NE Caribbean. About a day or two behind, storm Jose formed and initially followed about the same track. Shortly after, storm Katia formed in the Gulf of Mexico. All three rapidly progressed to hurricane strength, creating the unusual situation of 3 hurricanes active simultaneously in the western Atlantic.
In early September, Irma became the most powerful hurricane in this region, since records began. Early predictions indicated hurricane-strength impacts as far south as Dominica, including Montserrat (see red areas on map below).
In Montserrat, full hurricane battening down was implemented and telecommunications shut down to minimise damage. Fortunately, however, the storm turned slightly to the north, so that Montserrat suffered only tropical-storm strength winds from Irma, temporary communications loss and a few days spent on packing and unpacking houses and equipment. However, elsewhere, Irma caused widespread damage to infrastructure, homes, and businesses in the Caribbean, including several UKOTs: Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Barbuda suffered severely, with the entire human population being evacuated afterwards to the country’s main island, Antigua.
Several other islands suffered, especially Anguilla and the Dutch/French St Martin (which the eye of the hurricane passed directly over – map above and enlarged below). Thus, these places suffered intense winds in opposite directions over a very short time, as well as prolonged strong winds, as did the British Virgin Islands. (The map above illustrates this, and the following hurricane Jose starting to turn north and away.)
The map (below) shows the major hurricane later passing very close to the south of the Turks and Caicos Islands, creating further major damage there and in northern Cuba, before turning (a little further west than shown in that prediction), along western Florida and into other US states. At its peak, wind speeds reached 185mph. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it maintained these speeds for a record 37 hours, which could explain why the impact was so severe. The wind speeds were even greater than the 167mph of Hurricane Ivan, which hit the Cayman Islands in 2004. The following hurricane, Jose, had been expected to hit along the same route but, luckily, it changed course and went back out into the Atlantic. A state of emergency was declared in all of the UKOTs with worries about basic human needs and security. While the UKOTs prepare as best they can for the hurricane season, Hurricane Irma, a category 5 storm, has wiped out many coastal communities because of its sheer force. Many homes throughout the islands were damaged and many were left without roofs, power or clean water. The cost of the clean-up will be significant, especially to those, which were already on low incomes.
In Anguilla, it is anticipated that the power lines will be restored at the beginning of 2018. In the Turks and Caicos Islands, there is severe damage on all islands. (Previous hurricanes have tended to affect only parts of the archipelago, but major hurricane Irma travelled the length of it, with its centre just to the south of most islands.)
Only a matter of days after Irma moved on, Hurricane Maria arrived from the Atlantic slightly further south in the Lesser Antilles, devastating Dominica and Guadeloupe, and then passing extremely closely along the west coast on Montserrat, causing major damage. It crossed the NE Caribbean to hit the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, before giving another pounding to the eastern Turks and Caicos Islands, especially Grand Turk and Salt Cay. The hurricane season was not over. The economies and resources available to the UKOTs, given their small population sizes, means that outside help is desperately needed in order to get the islands up and running. The UK Government provided £32 million to those UKOTs affected immediately following the hurricane, with a further £25 million in the following week, but the ways in which these are being allocated are not yet known.
Over 1000 British troops and 50 police officers have been sent out along with equipment and supplies (but it is not known whether the cost of this is additional to, or included in, the cost figure above). The Guardian newspaper in UK reported that some insurance experts put the economic cost to the region as high as $300 billion. The economies of all the islands are dependent on tourism and the financial services industry, and so work to clean-up and restore power to the islands is fundamental to their recovery. Other UKOTs have been supporting their fellow UKOTs by providing urgent resources. Gibraltar has sent vehicles; Cayman has sent planes, supplies and personnel; the Bermuda Chair of UKOTA put out a statement pleading to the UK Government to do all they can to help now and in the future. UKOTCF has joined with several UK NGOs to show support for its members and associate organisations and others in Anguilla, BVI, TCI and Montserrat, in helping them to recover from the hurricane in whatever way they can. There will be much to do over the coming months and years to recover from Irma and Maria.
The only remaining dedicated source of environmental grant funding for the UKOTs, Darwin Plus, has even at the best of times – a fairly inconvenient time-window, during the main vacation period, for preparing applications, which should be collaborative betwen organisations. It had been expected that it would delay the deadline because of the impossibility of effective communications in several UKOTs as a result of the hurricanes but many were surprised that this was not done. It is true, however, that it would be impracticable for the Darwin Plus fund to be able to address all the subsequent environmental challenges ahead for Anguilla, BVI, Montserrat and TCI (and other islands suffering before and, one fears, after). This means that substantial funds will be needed for many years to come. Furthermore, building resilience in other vulnerable UKOT communities to the impacts of severe weather events is vital. So where do the UKOTs get the support that is needed? Should other UK Government funds such as the International Climate Fund be open to the UKOTs for this purpose?
As the UK leaves the European Union, funds and other resources, such as technical staff, which have, in the past, helped to re-build some infrastructure in the UKOTs following major hurricanes (e.g. Turks and Caicos after Ike and Hanna, and Cayman after Ivan) as well as supporting environmental work more generally will, almost certainly, be unavailable. In contrast, the costs will be high (relative to the UKOTs budgets; but much lower in UK budget terms). This includes restoring conservation and interpretation infrastructure (which itself, when operational, generates funding and underlies much of the habitat restoration (especially for endemic and sensitive species), maintaining salaries of key staff where these are normally supported from visitor income or local subventions, and strengthening capacity to adapt for future impacts.
We recognise that adding more administrative roles to UK officials at this time would be particularly difficult. Accordingly, UKOTCF would be very content to use its strong and long-established network with the UKOTs to facilitate appropriate disbursement of funds under whatever guidelines are agreed. We have stressed that by far the greatest part of global biodiversity, for which the UK is internationally responsible, lies in the UK’s Overseas Territories (where the population are mainly UK citizens). These environments are fragile, and they face major global challenges (e.g. climate change), which they cannot cope with alone. As always after major events, it will be worth UK Government, in consultation with the UKOTs and others with interest, to review its preparations for future emergencies. The armed forces perform excellently in these situations, but questions have already been raised about their tasking by government and the civil service. It may be a stretch for the one ship on station in the Caribbean in the hurricane season to assist adequately BVI and Anguilla, which are 170 km apart. Moreover, TCI is a further 750km away, and Montserrat some way in the other direction. A single vessel cannot assist all and, in fact, the first supply vessel to reach TCI was the normal commercial shipping service – and congratulations to them. The line of Hurricane Irma was well predicted about a week ahead of its arrival. Indeed, it then looked as if a fourth UKOT, Montserrat, would be impacted too, but this was delayed until Maria. However, a further naval vessel was not diverted from across the Atlantic until after the impact, and did not arrive until over two weeks after the hurricane’s actual impact.
Forum News 48 gives a brief update on this story (page 22-24).