10 Nov 2017

The green shoots are returning: Operation Ruman draws to a close

As Operation Ruman – the UK Government’s humanitarian and disaster relief effort in the Caribbean – comes to an end, defence features writer Robert Atherton explores the many ways in which our Armed Forces have helped the British Virgin Islands back to their feet post-Hurricane Irma.

A month-long clear-up operation has drawn to a close in the Caribbean as the remaining 100 members of 40 Commando Royal Marines made a triumphant return to RAF Brize Norton, their mission complete. Four weeks previous, the relief effort, dubbed Operation Ruman, began in earnest; a response to the widespread devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma and her temperamental cousins, Jose and Maria.

Around 300 UK military personnel – among them more than 200 Royal Marines, alongside engineers and specialists from all three Services – were tasked with delivering immediate relief to the British Virgin Islands. Early on this meant re-establishing order.

A military presence was absolutely essential, with 24-hour patrols helping to safeguard security across the territory. The structural integrity of a prison on Tortola – largest and most populous of the British Virgin Islands – proved another key consideration. Its weather-beaten blockwork was in dire need of repair, while 21 high-risk prisoners had to be ferried offsite to a facility on nearby Saint Lucia.

Transport infrastructure was the next priority. Here, engineering specialists worked tirelessly to rid Tortola’s road network of debris, improving access to much-needed emergency services. Those same engineers salvaged more than 60% of the wrecked pylons to allow BVI Electric Corporation to reconnect the islands all the more quickly.

And with Hurricane Maria on the horizon, the engineering contingent helped to ensure that the power station’s core systems were waterproofed, returning all-important mains power to hospitals and banks days after the disaster. As with any humanitarian crisis, hospitals and clinics are of the utmost importance. Medical personnel were on-hand to lend their expertise to Jost Van Dyke island, while Royal Marines evacuated the sick and vulnerable from Anegada at midnight amid extreme winds and torrential rain.

Latterly, attention shifted to the islands’ beleaguered schools and a return to normality. Saint George’s Secondary was repaired by assault engineers, with lessons restarting only recently. Many schools have received similar aid across the territory, including the Jost Van Dyke and Anegada primary schools and Bregardo Flax Education Centre on Virgin Gorda. Royal Marines have also supported UNICEF during the construction of two temporary tented schools in the capital.

It’s fair to say that the efforts of the Armed Forces have made an immeasurable difference in the British Virgin Islands post-Irma. And yet, the departure of the 40 Commando Royal Marines is right and proper – it represents a vital first step towards recovery, which may take many weeks and months to come.

During a recent press conference, Gus Jaspert – Governor of the British Virgin Islands – echoed those sentiments, thanking the Armed Forces for their assistance while stressing that their work across the territory was now complete.

“Although the effects are still being felt there have been noticeable improvements – the green shoots are returning,” said Jaspert.

“I give my heartfelt thanks to the military for their assistance. The UK military has played an important role but it is right that the military now move on as we start normalisation.”

But the work doesn’t stop there. In the days following the departure, the Department for International Development announced the creation of a private sector task force intended to aid long-term reconstruction in those countries and territories most affected by hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria.

Private sector support will be mobilised to rebuild critical infrastructure – the road networks and power supplies so essential to the region’s economic wellbeing –while bolstering their resilience to future natural disasters. A team of top business leaders, either CEOs or Chairs with experience in the Caribbean, will sit on the task force.

“No small island can reasonably be expected to recover and rebuild from a catastrophic disaster that undermines their entire economy without international

support,” said International Development Secretary Priti Patel.

“They need businesses to step up. The private sector is key to reviving the region’s economies and must play a central role in the reconstruction of these islands, helping them to build back better.”

As for the 40 Commando Royal Marines and their Army Commando Engineer comrades, they have made a return journey home – their role in this recovery well and truly complete.

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