Destruction may be less than Hurricane Irma’s but storm surge and flooding a real danger warns UK commander
British territories in the Caribbean are bracing for another big hurricane only a fortnight after the last devastating storm, with category 4 Maria threatening the British Virgin Islands.
The US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said the storm had already unleashed sustained winds of 175mph, and the British Virgin Islands were expected to face winds of 155 mph.
The centre said preparations against a “life-threatening storm surge and rainfall, flooding and destructive winds” should be “rushed to completion”.
Maria has already claimed one life, as officials on the French island of Guadeloupe confirmed a person was killed by a falling tree. Another two people were missing after their boat sank.
British troops have been helping with preparations for the storm with the main concern on the British Virgin Islands being flooding. Brigadier John Ridge, second in command of the UK’s joint task force, said that he expected the British Virgin Islands to escape the level of destruction wrought by Hurricane Irma, but added: “The real concern is the amount of rain and the storm surge. They are predicting between 7ft and 11ft of storm surge, and the problem with the rain is the flooding and run-off associated with that.”
In a separate interview with the BBC, he said: “We are hoping that the military personnel there – hunkered down during the worst of it – will be up and back in communication with us in the next hour or so. The worst in terms of the wind will certainly have been over the last few hours.”
Speaking via video link from Barbados, Ridge said: “We did everything we could until the last moment and then the teams out there hunkered down so that they were ready prepared.”
The Department for International Development (DfID) said 60 tonnes of supplies were on their way to the area on board HMS Ocean. Ridge confirmed they were due to arrive on Friday.
“The moment the hurricane is clear one of the first things I’ll be asking [the military personnel] to do is to confirm the state of the runway which is on Beef Island, just to the east of Tortola,” said Ridge. “That’s critical because it allows me to continue the [delivery] of aid and other support as required.”
The area has already been ravaged by Hurricane Irma and the British Foreign Office said: “There is a high risk of further severe damage. Coastal flooding is also highly likely.”
Updated travel advice warned: “If you’re in the British Virgin Islands you should identify shelter immediately and be ready to take cover when the hurricane approaches. If you’re currently outside the islands, you should not return to the territory at this time.” No flights are operating there, officials said.
The British international development secretary, Priti Patel, has described the situation as an “unprecedented crisis” and stressed that the UK government was “working flat out”.
On the British Virgin Islands, relief workers raced to secure debris left strewn about after Irma, as loose items could make the next hurricane more hazardous if picked up by the high winds.
Patel said: “This is an unprecedented crisis with two hurricanes of such brutal force hitting the Caribbean in less than a fortnight. Families have lost their homes, lives have been ripped apart, and the victims of Hurricane Irma are now facing the new threat of Hurricane Maria. But they should know, the UK government is working flat out to put the right supplies in the right places to cope with the fallout from this new hurricane.”
On Dominica nearly all communications were lost as Maria knocked out phone lines and the island’s broadcast service. Roofs were lost on 70% of properties, according to reports.
More than 1,300 UK troops are in the Caribbean after being sent to help with relief and repair work after Irma. An additional 42-strong military resilience team has also been deployed to the BVI, ready to offer support and assistance after Maria.
The Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This has been a fortnight of just relentless catastrophe.” He agreed with Ridge that the BVI were not expected to be hit as hard as previously, although he added: “I’m afraid anything on top of what happened before is quite bad enough and just adds to the misery.”
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