Royal Marine Commandos and engineers are continuing to gather medical supplies, food, water and building materials to send to the British Virgin Islands (BVIs), Anguilla, and Turks and Caicos after Storm Maria was upgraded to a hurricane overnight.
The hurricane is currently producing winds of 85mph which are predicted to increase dramatically as the storm follows a similar path to Hurricane Irma which devastated the islands last week, killing 44 people.
Maria could cause even more damage than Irma as the islands have not had time to recover from the previous record-breaking hurricane.
British troops are racing to deliver 75 tonnes of aid to the Caribbean before Maria hits
Hurricane Maria could cause potentially more casualties and fatalities than Irma did
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is advising against all travel to the BVIs 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 as Maria is predicted to intensify to a Category 4 hurricane in 48 hours, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Two RAF planes are flying between an aid hub in Barbados and the British territories, up to 1,000 miles away, as three storms, including Jose and Lee, churn in the Atlantic Ocean.
Chris Austin, from the Department for International Development (DFID), 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, the strongest of the three, edges closer.
He said they have already provided 75 tonnes of aid – including shelter kits, food and water – but the 5,000 tarpaulins already distributed could be lost in the new weather front.
The British Government has earmarked £57million in relief for the area and has already sent 60 tonnes of aid to the region.
Mr Austin, said: ”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.”
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 BVIs are all under hurricane watch, the centre added.
Brigadier John Ridge, 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.
He said additional reserve troops will be sent to the BVIs, 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.
He said: ”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.”
Maj Richard Grinsdell, Joint Force liaison officer with 40 Commando, with baby Amaurie, in Tortola
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, the largest of the BVIs.
He added: ”We are relying on other overseas territories and the US to just monitor that, the threat is very real.”
He said due to 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”.
He added: ”It could cause potentially more casualties and fatalities than Irma did.
“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.”
Hurricane Maria is taking the same path as Hurricane Irma, and could be even more devastating
The British Government has earmarked £57million in relief for the region
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 experts 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 per cent of Tortola’s prison population is now back behind bars, and during the potential hurricane, cross agency security forces will be placed inside the jail.
Brig Ridge added 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.