Battered Caribbean Islands brace for further major hurricane

British overseas territories in the Caribbean face being lashed by another major hurricane as they attempt to recover from the deadly devastation unleashed by Irma.

Hurricane Maria is gathering strength as it heads towards the Lesser Antilles, prompting alerts for the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla that lie to the west.

The hurricane is currently producing winds of 85mph (140kph) which are predicted to increase as the storm follows a similar path to Irma.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is advising against all travel to the British Virgin Islands as Maria is expected to make landfall on Tuesday or Wednesday, with severe damage and coastal flooding expected.

Similar warnings against all but essential travel are in place for Montserrat and Anguilla.

Chris Austin from the Department for International Development, who is now leading the UK's response to the disaster, said the Joint Task Force is anticipating having to provide further short term relief as Maria edges closer.

He said they have already provided 75 tonnes of aid - including shelter kits, food and water - but that the 5,000 tarpaulins already distributed could be lost in the new weather front.

"We are planning for the unexpected, we are planning for the worst, we need to demonstrate our own resilience because there could be some pretty sharp backwards steps I think," Mr Austin said.

The US National Hurricane Centre said Maria was strengthening and has issued a hurricane warning for Guadeloupe, Martinique and the British overseas territory of Montserrat.

Saint Martin, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands are all under hurricane watch, the centre added.

Brigadier John Ridge, the second in command of the Joint Task Force, said the UK's military helicopters and aircraft in the region "will be kept out of harm's way" in Barbados, where there is cover to protect them.

Storm Maria is set to arrive in Barbados on Sunday evening, although he stressed that it is not clear exactly which way it will track.

"It almost does not matter whether it tracks north of here or straight through here.

"If it tracks straight through here our problems are going to be the strength of the winds, if it tracks north of here we will be on the edge of the rain," he said.

"Even with an hour of rain here at the moment, it runs straight off as there is no vegetation.

"Normally it would get absorbed by the leaves, that's not there, and the storm drains which then divert the flow have all been blocked by the detritus that have run off the hills."

Brig Ridge said additional reserve troops will be sent to the British Virgin Islands, but defended his decision to put troops potentially in harm's way, stating it is a "risk worth taking" because it ensures "extra capacity" to deal with any immediate problems in the aftermath.

"Once the hurricane is through we can leap back into action, we have got the guys positioned in the right place so they are ready to react," he said.

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Maynard, commanding officer of 40 Commando Royal Marines, said the monitoring equipment to keep track of hurricanes is currently out of action on Tortola.

"We are relying on other overseas territories and the US to just monitor that, the threat is very real," he added.

He said the problem is that because there is so much debris on the island following the damage caused by Irma, a category three hurricane is "just going to pick all that up, spin it around and throw it like ammunition everywhere".

"It could cause potentially more casualties and fatalities than Irma did," he added.

"Of course there is the threat to my own force as well. (But) we are not going anywhere, it would be immoral and the wrong thing to do to leave these people to face another tragedy without us alongside."

He said the crisis is "far from over", adding: "The requirement for military forces to support in the delivery of aid, as first responders is still very much there."

Lt Col Maynard said the experts and people are already there ready to deal with whatever damage or problems Storm Maria may cause, and to get aid to wherever it is needed.

He revealed that 70% of Tortola's prison population is now back behind bars, and that during the potential hurricane, cross agency security forces will be put into the jail.

Brig Ridge added that he is "pretty worried" about the storm, because of the resilience of the communities already affected by Irma, and because he may end up with soldiers, marines and airmen in harm's way.

AP


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