The Royal Navy’s Caribbean task group has joined forces in Montserrat for the first time as it prepares for the impending hurricane season.
Helicopter carrier/support ship RFA Argus linked up with the Royal Navy’s permanent presence in the region, HMS Medway, to begin their combined disaster relief planning and preparations.
It’s just six weeks till the storm season begins – and in almost every year for the past couple of decades, Royal Navy or Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships in the Caribbean have been called upon to assist island communities, most recently Bahamians in the wake of Hurricane Dorian last autumn.
In Montserrat, Argus’ air group was reminded of the devastating power of Nature – but not a storm.
Half the island – including its capital Plymouth – remains out of bounds, the result of a series of eruptions from the Soufrière Hills volcano, which had been dormant for hundreds of years.
The crisis reached its climax in 1997, destroying 80 per cent of Plymouth, destroying the island’s only hospital and airport, burying it in mud and ash up to 12 metres deep.
Destroyer HMS Liverpool helped islanders move to the north side of Montserrat, although two-thirds of the population subsequently emigrated to the UK.
Soufrière Hills remains active and every year the Royal Navy supports the Montserrat Volcano Observatory by helping the scientists to re-locate seismic sensors and equipment.
In addition, wherever Argus visits as part of her deployment to the region she’s sending her helicopters – three Merlin troop carriers from 845 Naval Air Squadron and one smaller Wildcat maritime patrol aircraft – into the skies to provide the latest information on helicopter and beach landing sites if the worst should happen.
They’ve already scouted Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla but the ghostly ruins of Plymouth were a stark reminder of the planet’s power when unchecked.
“The airborne view of the abandoned city served as a powerful reminder of the impact of natural disasters – and reinforced the need for Argus’ presence to enable rapid humanitarian relief,” said Merlin pilot Captain Anne Bloechle, a US Marine Corps officer on exchange with 845 Naval Air Squadron.
“If a disaster should occur during this hurricane season, our support helicopters can bring supplies and personnel from ship to remote locations ashore. The recent flights have familiarised aircrew with the islands to ensure the best possible support to those living in nature’s destructive path.”
Together with a specialist Crisis Response Troop from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and her air group, Argus will remain on station with Medway until the late autumn, and also be available to provide resilience to British citizens overseas during the COVID-19 pandemic, just as their Royal Navy and Royal Marines comrades are doing supporting the UK Government’s at home.
“I feel it is important to provide help to our overseas territories when needed,” said 38-year-old Lieutenant Mark Jones from Plymouth (UK).
“I still remember hearing about the volcano on Montserrat as a young boy, and I also saw the devastation caused in 2017 by Hurricane Irma. Although we cannot control the weather, I am keen to uphold the UK’s continuing dedication to the provision of assistance from the sea wherever it may be required.”