Avatar photo

Ben Merrick

Director of Overseas Territories

Part of BBC Inside the Foreign Office 2018 Hurricanes

29th November 2018

Ben Merrick: dealing with Mother Nature’s destruction after Hurricane Irma

When the people of the British Virgin Islands went to sleep on 5 September 2017, they knew a very large storm was approaching. But nothing could have prepared them for the devastation they would experience when Hurricane Irma made landfall the next day. The once crystal clear, turquoise waters would churn with debris and across the territory, livelihoods would be destroyed. Life on the British Virgin Islands was shortly to change beyond all recognition.

Well-honed plans were put into action with people literally battening down the hatches and moving into shelters. Tension mounted as the hurricane moved closer. Everyone recognised that this would be a Big One.

Back in London, the Foreign Office and other government departments were ready for action. With the Met Office, our routine weather tracking highlighted 3 British Overseas Territories in Irma’s path – Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and Turks & Caicos Islands. The 14 British Overseas Territories are an integral part of Britain’s life and history, and 11 have their own populations and constitutions.


Some of the damage to The British Virgin Islands, seen from the air.


As Irma developed into a Category 5 hurricane (the most severe rating with sustained winds of over 185 mph) the Foreign Office Crisis Centre launched into round-the-clock shifts that would go on for 28 days, including 400 people in one 24-hour period.

Staff in the Crisis Centre worked to coordinate humanitarian relief efforts across the 3 Overseas Territories as well as the independent Caribbean countries and southern US states affected. The pace was staggering, with the Crisis Centre handling thousands of calls.

Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Mounts Bay was the UK’s first military response. It’s operational in the Caribbean during hurricane season and beyond for exactly this kind of situation. Within 24 hours of Irma passing, it had delivered 6 tonnes of emergency aid to Anguilla before arriving in the British Virgin Islands, where a State of Emergency had been declared, to assist in the disaster relief efforts.


UK military personnel delivering drinking water to the British Virgin Islands.


‘Rapid Deployment Teams’ arrived from London to support the small Foreign Office teams stationed in the islands. On stand-by to leave at 24 hours’ notice, they are teams of people who deploy to help in a disaster-affected area.

£72million was allocated to delivering our immediate response and support for early recovery priorities across the three affected Overseas Territories.

There are always lessons to be learned following disasters of any type. I am immensely proud of what the community achieved during the initial crisis and indeed ever since, demonstrating huge dedication to public service.


Governor Gus Jaspert speaking with British Virgin Islands residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.


Since September 2017, the Foreign Office has supported recovery efforts in the British Virgin Islands and the other affected Overseas Territories. The Prime Minister committed another £70 million for reconstruction efforts, including £10 million for the British Virgin Islands. This has provided extra help for their police and prison services, specialised vehicles for sewage maintenance, as well as support for basic infrastructure like social housing. We have been helping set up the Islands’ Recovery and Development Agency, and Governor Gus Jaspert recently handed over the keys to a mobile medical clinic which can get effective healthcare to remote areas.

While the Overseas Territories continue to tackle their reconstruction and recovery, the Foreign Office is working with other countries to share resources, expertise and ideas about disaster management.

Thankfully, this year the Overseas Territories were unaffected by hurricane season. But as we see tourists once again being drawn back to these beautiful islands, none of us can be complacent.


The sun sets on the British Virgin Islands.


Mother Nature cannot be stopped if she has a mind to destroy. Hurricane recovery is a long-term business, and there remains more to do in the Overseas Territories. We continue to support them as they bring their infrastructure and services back to normal. We put a great deal of effort into ensuring that we were even better prepared this summer, and will continue to do so as we head into 2019.

Find out more:

2 comments on “Ben Merrick: dealing with Mother Nature’s destruction after Hurricane Irma

Comments are closed.

About Ben Merrick

Ben was appointed Director of Overseas Territories at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in August 2017. In that role, he holds office as Commissioner of the British Antarctic Territory and…

Ben was appointed Director of Overseas Territories at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in August 2017. In that role, he holds office as Commissioner of the British Antarctic Territory and Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Previously he was the Deputy Director of the Overseas Territories and has worked in the Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office.