UK task force relieved but not complacent as Hurricane Maria skirts islands

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A UK task force chief says it is a "huge relief" the worst of Hurricane Maria swerved British overseas territories, but it is too early to be "counting our chickens".

Claiming the lives of at least 19 people so far, with many others missing, Maria has barrelled across the Caribbean over the past few days, unleashing devastation on islands in its path.

A hurricane warning has been issued for Turks and Caicos islands, with the category three storm expected to affect the British overseas territory from late Thursday.

Sir Rupert Briercliffe Hall is flooded after Hurricane Maria dumped rain through a hole in the roof that Hurricane Irma tore off the previous week in Road Town, Tortola island, on the British Virgin Islands (Freeman Rogers/AP)
Sir Rupert Briercliffe Hall is flooded after Hurricane Maria dumped rain through a hole in the roof that Hurricane Irma tore off the previous week in Road Town, Tortola island, on the British Virgin Islands (Freeman Rogers/AP)

With winds of up to 120mph predicted, the US Hurricane Centre said Maria was a "little stronger" as it began on a course to pass to the east of the islands.

As the hurricane rolled through the region and up towards Turks and Caicos, it skirted past the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla, which were left devastated by Irma.

Brigadier John Ridge, second in command of the UK's Joint Task Force, said early reports suggested little new damage had been caused by the second major hurricane in two weeks.

Royal Marines deliver aid and provide support to the islanders of Jost Van Dkye, British Virgin Islands (Ministry of Defence/PA)
Royal Marines deliver aid and provide support to the islanders of Jost Van Dkye, British Virgin Islands (Ministry of Defence/PA)

"It is a huge relief that those two islands have not suffered as we had suspected they might do, and more importantly planned for - we planned absolutely for the worst," he said. "But we are not counting our chickens."

Brig Ridge said Turks and Caicos would probably be battered by category one or category two winds, with the threat of storm surge and flooding also a possibility. "Our concern is to make sure we are completely ready for what we might need to do in Turks and Caicos," he said.

He stressed they were not sitting back and congratulating themselves on how it had gone, and revealed that a team sent into Montserrat on Thursday to review the damage was yet to report back.

With Maria having ravaged both Dominica and Puerto Rico, in the wake of the widespread destruction, Brig Ridge said they had had a request for help in undertaking assessments.

Trees stand barren and debris lays on the roadside, caused by Hurricane Maria in Road Town, on the island of Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands (Freeman Rogers/AP)
Trees stand barren and debris lays on the roadside, caused by Hurricane Maria in Road Town, on the island of Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands (Freeman Rogers/AP)

Initial reports from Dominica suggest large scale devastation, with 90% of buildings damaged or destroyed by the storm which made landfall with the island on Monday.

Also hitting Puerto Rico, it was the strongest storm in more than 80 years to sweep across the country - flattening homes and plunging the island into darkness after taking down power lines.

Brig Ridge said they took a "split team of half-civilian, half-military" into Dominica on a Chinook helicopter on Wednesday, following the request.

"We have done that assessment and there are a number of nations involved in the response for it," he said, adding that Maria has almost "completely destroyed their agricultural sector".

Following #HurricaneMaria UK forces are working tirelessly to clear roads so that vital @DFID_UK aid can get through to those in need #BVIpic.twitter.com/2Sea4DHvQh

-- Defence Operations (@DefenceOps) September 21, 2017

He said the relief effort in Dominica was being co-ordinated by the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) - with shelter, food and water being the critical aid requirement.

International Development Secretary Priti Patel described the situation across the region as an "unprecedented crisis".

"Our focus now is on making sure the islands affected have the right supplies in the right places to deal with the aftermath of the latest hurricane," she said.

So far the Government has pledged more than £57 million towards the disaster relief.

A Red Cross appeal, boosted by the Department for International Development's (DfID) aid match scheme doubling all public UK donations, has seen more than £2 million raised so far.

More than 75 tonnes of DfID aid has already arrived in the region, which includes food, water, 3,000 shelter kits, more than 5,000 solar lanterns and 10,000 buckets. Another 60 tonnes is steaming towards the Caribbean on board HMS Ocean which is due to arrive in the region on Friday.