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Hurricane Preparedness: Caribbean Overseas Territories

Volume 644: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2018

The United Kingdom is strongly committed to working closely with the British overseas territories in the Caribbean, to support their efforts to be as well prepared for the hurricane season as possible. In that context, the UK and the overseas territories share a collective responsibility for hurricane preparedness and are therefore working together to prepare for this year’s hurricane season. The hurricane season runs from June to November, with the period of highest risk from August to October. Following the devastating impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria last September, there remain some serious challenges in preparing for this year’s season, especially in those territories still recovering from the last year’s category 5 hurricanes. The UK remains fully committed to supporting their ongoing recovery, while also helping with preparations and resilience.

We have learned important lessons from our response last year, and are working to ensure an even stronger response to any hurricane this year. This includes strengthened co-ordination and communication with the overseas territories themselves, with regional countries and institutions, and involving other partners with territories in the region. We have prepared clearer guidance on command and control structures, and mechanisms for earlier escalation once there is a reasonable possibility that a hurricane is heading to the region. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) (alongside key partners) will monitor the impacts that any severe weather event during the hurricane season could have on the overseas territories. The FCO in consultation with Number 10 and the civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office, will work together to understand the nature and complexity of the situation and the severity of the impacts that are likely to be seen. As required, the Government will stand up crisis response systems, to co-ordinate and drive the response to the affected overseas territories.

The FCO, DFID and MOD are working closely to prepare for the hurricane season, drawing in other Departments and agencies as necessary. This year, the Met Office has also developed improved advisory arrangements for the Caribbean, and we are working more closely with them to gain a better understanding of the technical data as tropical storms are identified and develop.

Through the conflict, security and stability fund (CSSF), the FCO has boosted its disaster preparedness capability in the region through the contracting of experts from the stabilisation unit, who are leading on negotiations in advance of peak hurricane season on a number of commercial contracts to deliver essential recovery needs. This will complement the emergency provisions based on RFA Mounts Bay, and free up military assets to concentrate on key tasks such as helping to get ports and airports reopened for the delivery of supplies. We are also drawing up agreements to ensure that other services can be deployed rapidly if needed. This work is complementary to longer term strategic planning work over the next three years under the FCO-run overseas territories disaster management programme and the Anguilla and British Virgin Islands (BVI) recovery programmes, funded by the CSSF. This also follows on from CSSF funded work over the past six months to boost early recovery efforts including but not limited to re-electrification for Anguilla and BVI; infrastructure support to Anguilla’s airport; and security agency support, which includes infrastructure, capacity building and social housing. A project under way to hurricane-strengthen the hospital on Anguilla is a good example of increasing resilience and “building back better”.

We are also planning to pre-position more resource in theatre during the hurricane season and to have a greater range of specialist capabilities on stand-by. The MOD has carried out reconnaissance and analysis in the overseas territories, building links and familiarity with local and regional disaster management personnel, conducting professional analysis of selected critical infrastructure, and gaining a detailed understanding of the overall state of the overseas territories. A multi-national co-ordination cell located in the Caribbean (MNCCC) will be set up to provide integrated logistical co-ordination between partner countries and organisations, including the UK, USA, Canada, the Netherlands and France, working alongside the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). This will enable a single integrated process for assessing, communicating, deciding on and responding to needs in the independent Caribbean and the overseas territories.

MOD’S preparations and planning for hurricane relief in the Caribbean in 2018 have been extensive. The Defence contribution will be more specialised than in 2017 and will exploit MOD’S unique capabilities to best effect. The response will be scalable dependant on need and rely upon specialist forces positioned in the region—including RFA Mounts Bay, already on station. This will enable immediate assistance and damage assessments, informing the carefully tailored response force to follow. The priorities of any response are threefold: to clear a path for others, to support communications, and to ensure security should it prove necessary. Essential aid and supplies cannot enter the affected islands, or be effectively distributed, unless ports and airports are reopened and public order and a sense of security are upheld.

The Caribbean catastrophe risk insurance fund (CCRIF) paid out over $50 million to Caribbean countries and territories affected by the 2017 hurricanes. However, not all islands were insured. This year, the UK has supported BVI and Montserrat to join as new members. Now, all of the islands which were affected last year are covered by CCRIF, which DFID originally helped develop.

DFID is preparing hands-on help as an early response mechanism, in the form of fast mobilisation of humanitarian and logistics experts and essential supplies if required. DFID has embarked emergency supplies in RFA Mounts Bay, and can air-lift other essential humanitarian items and work with professional humanitarian partners on the ground if required. DFID is supporting CDEMA to improve its procurement and logistics capacity and stands ready to fund its first responders to disaster affected countries. DFID has well established programmes in the poorer Commonwealth countries of the Caribbean and, in addition to humanitarian assistance, is supporting reconstruction efforts in the hurricane-affected islands of Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda. DFID has also fielded a preparedness mission to the region from 5 to 17 June to co-ordinate UK preparations with both national and regional institutions.

We have engaged with the Governments of the overseas territories to ensure that their plans are as robust as possible, and to bolster their command and control capabilities as well as their capacity to deal with early humanitarian requirements. We are also planning to deploy certain skills and additional support to the islands in advance of a storm’s arrival or immediately thereafter. Staff with relevant skills who can be deployed at short notice have been identified.

The UK hosted an event on 28 June with a number of partner countries (France, the Netherlands, Canada, and the USA). Several countries in the region, including the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Barbados and Mexico, attended together with CDEMA. This meeting covered three key areas: military assistance, emergency humanitarian assistance, and political/communications, as well as how we best support affected individuals. The UK is hoping to have the outcomes endorsed at a meeting at ministerial level before the end of July. Greater co-operation in these areas will lead to a stronger and more effective regional response in the event of a hurricane hitting our overseas territories in the Caribbean.