The UK government has been asked to explain the appropriateness of its response to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Irma by two influential MPs, despite pledging £57 million worth of aid to help repair the damage. The chairmen of the all-party foreign affairs and development select committees, Tom Tugendhat and Stephen Twigg, demanded that ministers explain their response to Irma. This demand spearheads accusations that the British response to the natural disaster was not on the level expected, and falls short of the aid that France and the Netherlands provided to their territories in the region.
Sky News pointedly remarked that “the Dutch military had already been on the ground in St Martin for a number of hours when the hurricane hit”. The salience of this comment is disputed by the Foreign Office, who argued their efforts would be focused on the aftermath of the hurricane, saying to locals “our ability to provide assistance [during the hurricane] may be extremely limited. You should ensure you have your own contingency plans in place and consider your travel plans very carefully.” Furthermore, although more than 1,100 police, military officials and others were deployed to St. Martin and the nearby French Caribbean territory of St. Barts by the French government, the UK matched this with Theresa May claiming “we have now deployed over 1,000 military personnel to the region, with an additional 200 to arrive in the next few days along with over 60 police.”
The government claims the anger levelled at it is misplaced, as the level of aid it can provide is restricted by OECD regulation. There are very strict international rules about what officially counts as foreign aid, and under these rules Anguilla, Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands are considered too wealthy to qualify for assistance. Whilst this assessment has received widespread derision, it is not necessarily faulty.
Sir Richard Branson, who owns Necker Island in the Carribean, said “we were very fortunate to have a strong cellar built into Necker’s Great House and we were lucky all of our teams who stayed on the island during the storm are safe and well”. Another resident of the island said long-followed construction practices in the islands meant that most of the buildings were built with reinforced concrete cores strong enough to withstand hurricanes. Evidently, despite the devastation on the islands, their prosperity is sufficient to provide infrastructure providing the maximum reasonable resistance to hurricanes and other natural disasters.
People in countries or islands with sufficient prosperity and technology to warn, defend and protect each other are far less likely to die in natural disasters. Anguilla was reduced to rubble with the death of only one person (remarkably), whereas 138,000 people died as a result of Cyclone Negris in impoverished Burma in 2008. Demands to flout OECD regulations are understandable but misguided; few in the cold light of day suggest that funds should go to Anguilla rather than Burma. The international aid budget is designed to provide infrastructure in under-developed countries so as few people die there as did in British overseas territories in the Caribbean. The death rate from droughts, floods and storms globally is about 98 per cent lower than it was a century ago. Therefore, it seems fair to conclude that wealth is often the best defense against storms.
Nevertheless, the result is that the funds to restore the islands come from “scanty resources” in cross-government funds. Meanwhile, the group of charities that form the Disasters Emergency Committee are refusing to launch an emergency appeal for the three British territories because "many of the islands that have been affected are supported by wealthy nations such as the UK, France and the US”. Concurrently, some local politicians are underplaying the help required because they do not want to be seen to cede control to the British government. They do not want to highlight reliance as they are pushing towards full independence from Britain.
The result is that British territories in the Caribbean are caught in an (all too literal) perfect storm where the UK government is little able to provide relief on account of OECD rules, charities refuse to launch an appeal because of the assumption the UK government could provide aid, whilst their local governments downplay the need for aid at all.
A Backbench report by Tom Mitchell