Britain’s response to Hurricane Irma has been “found wanting”, the heads of two parliamentary committees have said.
Many of those affected in the UK’s overseas territories in the Caribbean remain in “grave need”, the chairmen of the foreign affairs and international development committees said.
The UK has stepped up its relief effort, with the first of three RAF aid flights on their way to the area.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has said the UK’s response was “very good”.
Responding to criticisms, he highlighted the fact that UK military ship RFA Mounts Bay had been in the region, adding “you had to deal with hurricane winds blowing through”.
“So it was difficult to deliver helicopters and deliver planes in the way the islanders would’ve wanted.”
Irma has caused huge damage in the British overseas territories of Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the Turks and Caicos islands further north, and also “swiped” another, Montserrat, but caused less serious damage.
The storm is now expected to hit Florida or neighbouring states in the US over the weekend.
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat and Labour’s Stephen Twigg have written to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and International Development Secretary Priti Patel to criticise the “lack of forward thinking”.
Mr Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, and international development committee head Mr Twigg said: “Experts and many in the area have been critical of the overall level of relief currently on offer as well as the apparent lack of forward-thinking once the storm’s route to Florida became more than just a possibility.”
They did welcome the increase in relief funding for the territories to £32m.
The BVI has declared a state of emergency and governor Gus Jaspert asked the UK for help amid reports of widespread devastation, with casualties and fatalities reported.
Mr Jaspert has warned that another storm, Hurricane Jose could reach the islands at the weekend.
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Sharon Flax-Brutus, director of tourism for the islands, said the damage was difficult to assess because communications were down, but that “many homes are without roofs, or have been diminished to merely foundations”.
Simon Cross, who moved to the BVI two years ago, said the first warning he had of the hurricane hitting his building was when a skylight was blown off the roof.
“The wind was scary enough for us to all end up huddling in an adjoining bathroom which had a small window protected by metal shutters.
“The wind was like nothing I’ve ever known in my life. It was crazy.”
Briton Emily Killhoury, who lives on Tortola in the BVI with her husband Michael and their two children, aged nine and 10, told the BBC her family bunkered down in a cupboard when the storm hit.
“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.”
Prime Minister Theresa May has chaired a meeting of the government’s emergency response Cobra committee.
She said UK troops deployed on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ship Mounts Bay have been working in Anguilla and have “made the airfield serviceable, restored power to the hospital and rebuilt emergency shelters”.
They have also begun assisting the governor of the BVI and working to ensure the airfield is accessible for military aircraft to fly in with emergency supplies, she added.
“Every effort is being made to ensure that as much as possible can be done in advance of Hurricane Jose, which is the next hurricane reaching that area.”
The prime minister said the UK was also “committed” to providing support to ensure reconstruction work is done in the region in the long-term.
British overseas territories are self-governing but rely on the UK for protection from natural disasters.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the impact of Hurricane Irma on the Caribbean was “entirely predictable” and the British government “should have acted much faster”.
What has happened in British territories?
- Anguilla: Hit by the full blast of the hurricane on Wednesday. At least one death reported.
- British Virgin Islands: Reports of casualties and fatalities and extensive damage. Expected to require extensive humanitarian assistance. In a message the people of the BVI, governor Gus Jaspert said: “I come to you with a heavy heart after experiencing and observing the extent of devastation caused by Hurricane Irma.” Communications are difficult.
- Montserrat: “Swiped” by Irma but suffered less serious damage.
- Turks and Caicos: Battered by the hurricane on Thursday night, with roofs ripped off, streets flooded, utility poles snapped and a widespread black-out on the main island of Grand Turk.
What is the UK doing?
Humanitarian workers with 200 shelter kits and the British ship, RFA Mounts Bay, were sent to the area before the hurricane struck.
The MoD-owned vessel arrived in Anguilla on Thursday and delivered six tonnes of emergency aid, with personnel there clearing roads and helping to restore power.
The ship has since arrived in the BVI – 90 miles to the west – to help with disaster relief efforts there.
Warship HMS Ocean is also being sent from the Mediterranean but is not expected to arrive for another two weeks.
The first British military flight to join the relief effort has left RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire carrying about 50 personnel – including engineers, marines and medics, as well as rations and water.
Other transport aircraft are expected to follow with helicopters on board.
What is the advice for travellers?
Thousands of British tourists are believed to be holidaying in the Caribbean, the travel association Abta said.
Britons in the region have been urged to follow evacuation orders, while states of emergency have been declared in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Florida, amid fears Miami could be struck directly by the hurricane.
Holiday firms are monitoring the situation and some have cancelled flights or offered to amend bookings for those due to travel to affected areas in the coming days.
The cruise company Carnival has cancelled four cruises bound for the Caribbean that were due to depart over the next few days – and warned that others may be cut short.
The Foreign Office urges people planning to go to the areas to follow the advice from the local authorities, including any evacuation orders, and check its official travel guidance before travelling.
It has set up a hotline for people affected by the disaster and for people whose loved ones may be affected on 020 7008 0000.
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