A joint disaster response mission by Serve On and Team Rubicon UK have arrived in the Hurricane-hit British Virgin Islands in a unique collaboration with the Royal Air Force.
With the BVI devastated by category 5 Irma's 185mph winds and Category 4 Hurricane Jose threatening to follow Irma's path of destruction, the team had successfully reached Barbados but all standard flights onward to the area had been cancelled.
The only air link to the main island Tortola was through rare emergency flights until the arrival of the RAF on Friday.
The five-man Serve On team of disaster response volunteers and our two colleagues from Team Rubicon UK had already arrived in Barbados by then and were desperate to get on the ground and use their skills to help the islanders.
They managed to secure a precious flight to Tortola but with restrictions on use of the BVI's Beef Island airstrip they were struggling to find a way to move their life-saving kit, including water filtration, technical search equipment, power, communications, tents and the supplies necessary to make them self-sufficient.
That's when the RAF stepped in.
“We understand we are the first NGOs the RAF has given official help to in this disaster situation, and are hugely grateful for their can do attitude and assistance. The earlier our specialist assessment teams can reach the affected areas, the greater the impact they can have on helping authorities prioritise which areas are in most need of urgent aid” described the team at the UK based Operations centre.
While the rescue volunteers, with 75 years of disaster response and search and rescue experience between them, headed into the disaster zone in a small Beechcraft B99 turbo-prop plane their kit was loaded onto an RAF Airbus A400 bound for the 60 islands of the BVI where hundreds of homes have been flattened and a 30ft storm surge had caused massive flooding.
The team are now in Tortola, where they were met with apocalyptic scenes of devastation in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
The white sand beaches that normally make the islands a tropical paradise were littered with the washed up wrecks of yachts; the once lush green hillsides were brown where every leaf had been stripped from the trees whose trunks had been left like the shell-blown stumps of a WWI battlefield.
Landing at the Terance B Lettsome airport on Beef Island, our team witnessed steel-framed hangars reduced to twisted tents of metal littered with the smashed remnants of light aircrafts, and cars piled on top of each other like discarded toys.
To the side of the runway a destroyed helicopter hung upside down in the bare trees.
A steady stream of traumatised residents and their bewildered young children, queuing through the storm-wrecked airport buildings to get any flight they could off the islands, saw the union flags on our team’s blue uniforms and were quick to welcome our incoming volunteers for any help they could offer.
When our experts landed in the islands laid waste by Category 5 Irma’s 185mph winds, they still had to get access to the country but the five members of Serve On and two members of Team Rubicon immediately used the waiting time to make themselves useful.
They loaded the bags of departing residents on to trucks and repaired fencing to secure part of the airport perimeter.
One resident getting his family off the islands told the Serve On team: “We’re very glad to see you. The islands need you. We were very lucky; our house survived, but many of our neighbours were not so lucky.
“We’re getting out for the sake of the children.”
He said the security situation was worsening, leading authorities and the military to enforce a 6pm curfew, though others said things were not so bad. He said: “There was a little bit of looting to start with, not much more than scrumping. But recently there have been shots.”
As the curfew neared with the team still waiting for permission to enter the islands and start vital assessment work, our volunteers threw themselves into clearing the airport’s departure lounges which could hardly have been more damaged if they had been bombed.
Heavy rows of seating had been blown into piles, air-conditioning units hung like spiders from ceilings stripped of their tiles and broken glass was everywhere. Metal doors and windows were a tangled mess and though the roof had stayed on the airport, dustbins well inside the building were filled with up to a foot of rainwater.
It meant the residents trying to escape the carnage of their lives had to share the single clear arrivals entrance being used by incoming aid workers.
Within an hour and a half our team had cleared the debris and moved the seating enough for the airport to open two departure channels, and for the army to use another to stack incoming supplies of water and emergency food from UK Aid.
As permission to enter the islands was cleared, airport manager Mr Denniston Fraser said: “Thank you so much for what you have done. If we can help you we’d like to,” but with the curfew fast approaching, the team hunkered down with the military on the floors of the airport building ready for a 5.30am start this morning.