At 8 a.m. Atlantic Standard Time on Sept. 6, 2017, the National Hurricane Centre in Miami posted its usual intermediary advisory with the headline in all caps, including ellipses, stating: “…EYE OF POTENTIALLY CATASTROPHIC CATEGORY 5 HURRICANE IRMA PASSES OVER ST. MARTIN…NORTHERN EYEWALL POUNDING ANGUILLA…” At that time, the center of Irma was located at 18.1 degrees north and 63.3 degrees west or 15 miles, west-south-west of Anguilla and moving in a west-north-west direction at 16 miles per hour with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour.
When the hurricane had finished its devastation on Anguilla later that day, the clouds cleared, and rain stopped, the jurisdiction had suffered its worst hurricane strike in recorded history, as far as I am aware. One person died, ironically enough, a neighbor of mine, and buildings which had stood for decades and in some cases for over a century, laid in ruin.
The International Organisation for Migration estimated that Hurricane Irma “substantially damaged” some 90 percent of government buildings, as well as electricity infrastructure and the main water supply.
The damaged buildings included the Government Headquarters located at The Secretariat in the island’s capital, The Valley, the Old and New Police Stations, the Parliamentary Building which houses the House of Assembly, Magistrates’ Court, Court Registry and High Court, Her Majesty’s Prison, all the island’s government primary schools and lone secondary school, the tower and parts of the Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport, the Princess Alexandra Hospital and the Blowing Point Ferry Terminal (through which most tourists/locals enter) among others. Historical buildings such as the Ebenezer Methodist Church (built in 1830 by slaves), the Bethel Methodist Church, the Anguillian (a large turn-of-the-century-style house which once served as general grocery store, built decades before), Kool Keel (an old plantation house), Teacher Ruby Carter’s House (built decades earlier), the Pump House in Sandy Ground which processed salt from the pond which was then shipped abroad, mainly to Trinidad for use in the oil refining process there up until 1985, were all damaged severely through lost roofs and structural damage or totally destroyed and flattened with nothing left standing.
The electricity grid was flattened with the Anguilla Electricity Company Ltd. (ANGLEC) suffered damage to its facilities. Telecommunications, both telephone and internet, were disrupted but FLOW, to its credit, stood up in certain areas throughout the hurricane despite having many of its towers blown down, while Radio Anguilla continued to broadcast via Periscope due to the ingenuity of one of its staff members, Nisha Dupuis, after it went off the air. Several major local businesses also suffered immense damage and it appears that no one escaped some effect, either to their homes, businesses or vehicles.
While there has been no official word as to the estimated cost of the damage done to Anguilla, Curtis Richardson, Minister of Infrastructure, has stated publicly that his “back of the envelope” estimate is US$2 billion. In any case, the final figure will be astronomical especially in light of the fact that in all its history since British settlement in 1650, Anguilla’s Gross Domestic Product has never exceeded US$356.84 million (achieved at the height of its boom in 2007).
However, work has already begun on assessing the financial effect of Irma led by a team from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).
At 10:42 p.m. British Standard Time, on Sept. 6, 2017, shortly after Irma passed over Anguilla, the UK’s Guardian newspaper led with the following headline: UK government accused of ‘pathetic’ lack of help for Anguillans hit by Irma. In the article, former Anguillian government representative to the UK/EU, Dorothea Hodge, criticized the lack of a robust financial response to the damage done on Anguilla. She urged the U.K. government to follow the example of France (St. Barts and Saint Martin, French Caribbean Overseas Territories were also devastated by Irma). She added: “In comparison to the French president who has set up an emergency fund, an emergency hotline and a reconstruction fund, her [Priti Patel, the then U.K.’s International Development Secretary] response after the storm has passed is absolutely pathetic. … It’s absolutely disgraceful that it has taken the whole day for Priti Patel to respond to the worst hurricane we have seen in a British territory since the 1920s.”
Miss Hodge, whose comments were reiterated later in the British media and through subsequent appearances on the BBC and elsewhere, was supported in her criticisms by. Josephine Gumbs-Connor, a local barrister who went through Irma. Mrs. Gumbs-Connor became somewhat of a media darling through appearances in both the U.K. and U.S. media and contrasted the swift French and Dutch responses with that of the U.K. The Dutch Caribbean islands of Saba, St. Eustatius and Sint Maarten (which shares a border with Saint Martin on the same geographical land mass) were also affected by Irma.
It is important to understand the political context of the criticism. The Dutch had troops on all three islands prior to Irma’s arrival, helping the local population prepare for its passage. In addition, naval vessels were dispatched from Curacao and Aruba, (both these islands lie just of the coast of South America outside of the hurricane belt), to arrive on the aforementioned islands after the storm passed to assist with the clean-up and restoration. In similar fashion, the French mobilized troops on the nearby island of Guadeloupe (also a French Caribbean Territory and to the south of Saint Martin which was affected by Irma, but only slightly) and two frigates stood close by to land troops and further supplies once the stormed passed. As a result, both the Dutch and French were able to get troops and supplies into their territories within a few hours of Irma’s passage.
The British, on the other hand, were only able to get a ship and a few troops into Anguilla, the first of the U.K. Overseas Territories to be hit by Irma, two days after its passage. While the RFA Mounts Bay had indeed been in the region since July to prepare for the hurricane season, which seems to be the usual British practice, the fact remains that its arrival on the island paled in comparison to the manner in which the French and Dutch performed by landing hundreds of troops and relief supplies to assist with the cleanup and restoration within hours, not days, of Irma’s passage. The only thing the British sent to Anguilla prior to Hurricane Irma was a team of humanitarian experts.
In fact, Mounts Bay landed with three U.K. humanitarian experts and a mere 40 Royal Marines and Army Engineers after Irma passed, spent a few hours and then sailed westwards to the British Virgin Islands (BVI) with all the marines. Mounts Bay’s helicopter did perform flyovers to assess damage and dropped 6 tonnes of relief supplies but if it left any troops on island, the numbers would, by definition, have been very low. This is not to minimize its contribution, since, as per the ship’s commanding officer: “Engineers were on hand to stop a potentially-dangerous fuel leak at Anguilla’s main petrol dump, restore power to the island’s sole hospital and hand out shelters providing temporary homes for people left homeless by the storm. They also cleared the runway which was declared safe for relief flights.”
It is worth noting, however, that most of the cleanup and restoration work on Anguilla was done, and rightfully so, I might add, by local Anguillians and residents living on the island. The extent of the cleanup was evident just one week after and commented upon by U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson during his visit to the island. Again, this is not to minimize the U.K. efforts where after the Mounts Bay’s visit, local troops, including some police officers, were deployed to the island to assist in the cleanup, restoration and rebuilding effort, especially at the hospital, schools and other government buildings. However, even that was not without controversy since there were questions asked as to whether or not the ship actually berthed on the island. I will not debate that for purposes of this article since it is not central to its premise but for the complete record, it has to be included.
Later, around the time Mounts Bay returned for a second visit a few days later, after it visited the BVI and USVI, and Johnson was preparing to come, at least 70 troops were on the island along with four U.K. police officers .
The criticism led by Miss Hodge and Mrs. Gumbs-Connor was catnip for Labour politicians and others who used it as a battering ram to go after the government of Prime Minister Theresa May. A debate broke out in the U.K. media, and was picked up globally, as to whether or not Britain’s response was swift enough, especially when compared to that of the French and Dutch.
On the Sept. 7, 2017, Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan made a detailed statement to the House of Commons on the U.K.’s government response. In it he stated: “Anguilla received the hurricane’s full blast. The initial assessment is that the damage has been severe and in places critical. We expect further reports to make clear the full nature of the devastation and at the moment Anguilla’s port and airport remain closed.”
Over the next few days as Miss Hodge and Mrs. Gumbs-Connor repeated their criticisms and pressed their case in the international media through a well-coordinated and executed campaign, the U.K. government was placed on the back-foot as the debate continued to rage. May, Johnson, Duncan, Patel and then then U.K. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon all insisted that the U.K. responded in a timely manner – stressing the work done by personnel from Mounts Bay in clearing the airport runway to make it serviceable for relief flights, work on the hospital to restore generator power and rebuilt emergency operations center along with some of the damaged hurricane shelters.
They also stressed the £32 million in aid money being released to support relief efforts. However, even this was criticized by the former Attorney General of Anguilla, Rupert Jones, who questioned why it was so little for the three territories (Anguilla, BVI, and Turks and Caicos) which were affected by Irma. Jones made some comments on the status of these territories as international financial services centers and seemed to make the argument that some, like Richard Murphy, have openly made, that any British recovery aid should be linked to further transparency in this industry.
The U.K. government ministers were backed up by the current Anguillian government representative to the U.K./EU, Blondell Cluff who, not surprisingly, came to the defense of the government. However, the Conservative MP Chris Philp put his foot in his mouth when he stated, erroneously, that Mounts Bay had gotten the airport up and running (it cleared the runway but the airport’s tower was damaged and thus normal operations, including night flights, have not been restored at the time of this article), that the hospital was up and running (generator power was restored but power from the grid was only restored on Sept. 20 and at the time of Johnson’s visit, work on the roof was continuing) and that power had been restored. If Philp meant power was restored to the hospital, he was correct only to the extent that generator power was restored. Power to the entire island was only restored by Dec. 15.
From the region, the response was one of solidarity and pledges of practical support, which quickly materialized. Through the Caribbean Electric Utility Services Corporation (CARILEC), several teams of linesmen/technicians rushed to assist with the restoration of the electricity grid. These included persons from Dominica, Grenada, Barbados, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, the Bahamas, Guyana and later Canada. Ironically, the team from Dominica, which was the first or amongst the first to arrive, had to return less than two weeks later to deal with the devastation caused to their homeland by Hurricane Maria. Their contribution was both poignant and practical, and, given what they returned home to, will long be remembered in Anguilla.
The Cayman Islands government sent two relief flights to the island, the first one led by its Premier, Alden McLaughlin, flown in by Cayman Airways, arrived on Sept. 12. It must have been a sight to see a Boeing 737 with the livery of the Cayman Airways’ planes landing in Anguilla bringing 15,000 pounds of relief supplies and an 11-member medical team to assist with the rebuilding efforts and operations of the hospital. This show of support was welcomed by senior government officials and, by extension, the entire island. The second flight returned two weeks later to swap out the original team, bring more medical and relief supplies and return patients from Anguilla who were seeking care in the Cayman Islands. These flights will long be remembered on the island, as well.
The Caricom Chairman, Grenada’s Prime Minister Keith Mitchell and Secretary General Ambassador Irwin Laroque visited the island shortly after Irma passed, along with Executive Director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) Ronald Jackson, to assess the damage. A delegation also came from the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank led by Governor Timothy Antoine which distributed relief aid and made an EC$1 million contribution to the Anguillian government. In addition, another EC$17.62 million was paid to Anguilla from the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF). Another US$200,000 also came from the Caribbean Development Bank. Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) leaders including Prime Ministers Roosevelt Skerritt of Dominica, Allen Chastanet of St. Lucia and Timothy Harris of St. Kitts/Nevis visited to pledge their support to the island. The Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) also visited the jurisdiction to assess the effect of Irma.
There will be a greater need for aid to rebuild the jurisdiction and this acknowledgement led to further debate of the role of the UK government when it was revealed internationally, although this has long been known in Anguilla, that the island and the other BOTS affected by Irma were not eligible for British foreign aid . There have been calls for the rules to change and there is some movement in the right direction but only time shall reveal what transpires.
It goes without saying that the vast majority of the rebuilding and restoration work has to be done by and paid for, with regards to private businesses and homes, by local Anguillians. It is not the responsibility of the government to rebuild these structures. It will be a tall order for Anguillians to do on account of an economy that was performing quite poorly prior to the passage of Irma. However, with regards to the infrastructure such as the schools, ferry terminal, government buildings and other things that are publicly owned, foreign help will be needed. Again, at the time of writing, the jurisdiction has made great strides as it seeks to return to normality.
The reasons for the difference in response between the British, French, Dutch to Irma.
Among the few journalists and news crews who visited Anguilla post Irma, none did a better job contrasting the responses of the British, French and Dutch to the destruction of the aforementioned islands and the underlying reasons for this than Alex Thomson from U.K.’s Channel 4, whose work was picked by PBS in the U.S. Mr. Thomson filed four reports from Anguilla, with one focusing on Saint Martin. These reports highlighted the incredible devastation on Anguilla and Saint Martin and showed the starkly different responses from the British government versus the responses of the French and Dutch governments.
The cause of the difference lies in the constitutional settlement between Anguilla, Saint Martin/Saint Barts and Sint Maarten and their administering countries, namely the U.K., France and the Netherlands, respectively. The British Empire, I suppose being larger and more far flung, was organized differently than those of the French and Dutch, which were smaller and less expansive. The U.K. kept its colonies constitutionally separate from Britain. The colonies were not constituent parts of the U.K. but were legally distinct parts of the Empire.
People living there were not afforded the same rights and privileges in the U.K. as someone born and raised in the U.K. This allowed, I suppose, for independence to be granted more easily to these countries which, once they stopped being colonies, lost whatever version of British status they had and the people living there became citizens of the independent state.
Over the years, as the sizes of these countries’ colonial empires shrunk following the post-World War II independence movement, the British increased its distance in terms of governance between its territories and the U.K., while the French and the Dutch integrated theirs within their own legal and political structures. So, by the end of the Dutch and French Empires, the remnants became integral or constituent parts of the Netherlands and France respectively. Dutch and French (now European Union) citizenship was granted to the peoples in these areas and their political and educational systems were integrated with that of the mainland.
Today, Saint Martin and Saint Barts are collectivities of France and are integral parts of the French Republic. When there is a French Presidential Election and French National Assembly elections, the people of both these territories vote. Sint Maarten is a constituent country of the Dutch Kingdom; the other parts being Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands itself. Sint Maarten sends to The Hague a “Minister Plenipotentiary” who is the official representative of the Sint Maarten government in the Netherlands and forms part of the Council of Ministers of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Saba and Sint Eustatius are legally part of the Netherlands itself and when one is there, it is as if one is in Holland for all intent and purposes. In both these scenarios, especially that of Sint Maarten, leaders and representatives of these territories are at the heart of Dutch and French governments’ decision-making processes.
There is a French Minister of the Overseas Territories and both the French and Dutch maintain military personnel in its territories through naval bases and ships .
Anguilla, on the other hand, is an Overseas Territory separate and apart from the U.K. We do not vote in U.K. general elections, did not take part in the Brexit vote and have no representatives in the U.K. Parliament. It is self-governing with a local Parliament, Executive Council (the Government of Anguilla) and a British-appointed Governor. It is responsible for financing its own operations and governing itself in relationship with Britain. It does not get any grant aid and all foreign assistance comes through the EU, which will end when Britain leaves the Union in 2019. This situation exists despite the fact that as per the U.K.’s International Development Act, the first charge on U.K. foreign aid is for the Overseas Territories.
The relationship between the U.K. and Anguilla is one characterized by not only physical but also constitutional distance. In fact, up until the late 1990s, when Anguillian ministers of government visited London, they interacted with some low to mid-level bureaucrat in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It has only been in recent times that they were able to meet with U.K. ministers and mostly with the minister for the Overseas Territories, which again is a creation of recent vintage.
Only in even more recent times have leaders of the territories interacted with the Foreign Secretary. Only in 2013, when then Prime Minister David Cameron summoned all the leaders to London to be dressed down by him, can I remember a U.K. Prime Minister meeting a Chief Minister of Anguilla. It was only in the first decade of this century that Anguilla finally appointed a U.K./EU representative based in the U.K. to lobby the government on behalf of Anguilla. Most, if not all of the Overseas Territories have such representatives, but these persons are not diplomats. Anguilla is not a sovereign state and Mrs. Cluff is not a member of either House of Parliament, as in the case of what Saint Martin and Saint Barts have with France, or a Minister of Government as in the case of Sint Maarten.
Whereas the Dutch Monarch often visits Sint Maarten even when no natural disasters take place and the French President has been to Saint Martin before, since 1650, Anguilla has only ever been visited once by a U.K. monarch. No U.K. prime minister, living or dead, has ever set foot on the island. I believe that Boris Johnson has been the first foreign secretary to visit Anguilla since Lord Caradon did in 1969 following the U.K. invasion of Anguilla to put down the rebellion known as the Anguilla Revolution, which started on May 30, 1967 and which, ironically, Anguilla celebrated the 50th anniversary of a few months prior to Irma’s unwelcomed but historically significant visit. In fact, prior to Irma, other than the regular visits by a Royal Navy vessel, so many British troops have not been in Anguilla since they left in the early 1970s after their work was completed following the aforementioned invasion.
Further compounding the issue is the fact that up until the May 21, 2002, the people of Anguilla, despite it being a British possession for more than 350 years, were not granted full U.K./EU citizenship with the right of abode in the U.K. This changed on the aforementioned date and it was facilitated by the passage of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 which was only made possible by the return of Hong Kong to China five years earlier. It goes without saying that had this latter event not taken place, there was no way that the U.K. government was going to confer full British citizenship on belongers of Anguilla and the others if it meant giving the same status to 5 million Hong Kong Chinese. I suppose then that we should be grateful for the 1984 Sino-British Treaty. Hong Kong’s loss, if one sees it as that, was Anguilla’s gain.
This anomaly had long been a source of discord amongst the people of Anguilla and the other British territories, in that while they were treated as foreign students when studying in the U.K., their French and Dutch neighbors could to go to the U.K. and study, without a student visa, and pay U.K. fees while we were classified differently as “international students.” I experienced this personally in 1995 when I first went to the U.K. to study and this was compounded by the fact that when I was born, though in Anguilla, both my parents were full British citizens with then U.K. passports, but I was not considered a British citizen, unlike an elder brother who was born there 10 years earlier.
It is this distance, legally/constitutionally/politically and, dare I say, psychologically/emotionally and economically, between Anguilla and the U.K. that is at the heart of the difference in response to Irma’s passage. In fact, the average U.K. person does not know that there are British Overseas Territories and thus, during their media campaign by Ms. Hodge and Mrs. Gumbs-Connor stressed the fact that the residents of Anguilla were as British as the people in Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.
Unless that distance is bridged, I am afraid that future responses to natural disasters will be just as slow and late when compared to the French and Dutch territories as in the case with Irma.
Time for a new relationship with the UK
Irma exposed the weaknesses of the relationship between Anguilla and the U.K. and the urgent need for not only a comprehensive rebuilding program but a need for constitutional reform backed up by practical measures to make said reforms effective. This is especially needed in light of the fact that under the current constitution which dates from 1982 with minor amendments in 1990, responsibility for disaster management lies with the Governor who also has responsibility for the civil service, police, financial services and other reserved powers. Some have argued that Anguilla should be independent while some may argue now for greater integration with the U.K.
We already have a Minister for the Overseas Territory who is usually from the House of Lords and based in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It could be argued that Anguilla and the other territories need representatives in the U.K. Parliament as the French territories have in France. I would see this as being very unlikely with regards to the House of Commons because there could not be one MP for all the territories or even one MP, say, for Anguilla, BVI and Montserrat which are close, due to parochial politics and the practical fact that the needs of each territory may be slightly different.
The U.K. population would certainly not wish for its government to be decided by a MP from a far-flung place that they have never heard of or didn’t know exists. So, any form of parliamentary representation in the U.K. would be ideally placed in the House of Lords and be an appointed position by the government of the day from each territory and who could be mandated to sit on the cross-benches to avoid partisanship but would be able to advocate on the part of their respective territories.
Henry Bellingham, a former U.K. Minister for the Overseas Territories in commenting on the U.K. government’s response to Irma, suggested a permanent naval base be built in one of the territories. This is an interesting proposition but unfortunately all the British territories in the region are in the middle of the hurricane belt. It is my view that a base would not be feasible on any of the smaller British territories and a better approach would be to join the Dutch on its base outside the hurricane belt or simply maintain two ships within the region for six months outside the zone of a passing hurricane to be able to respond quickly both before the arrival and after the passage of the storm. Bellingham made the pertinent point that we knew at least a week before that Irma would be the storm of all storms and while its precise path at that time may not have been pinned down, we knew that it was coming and therefore HMS Ocean, which later provided aid to Anguilla and BVI, should have headed to the region at least a week before Irma struck. I agree fully with this approach and a proposed practice to have two or three vessels in the region with sufficient troops to pre-position to assist with preparations and then of course to return after the hurricane passes, could be an alternative to the permanent naval base.
Whatever the form of the new relationship is with the U.K., whether it is independence as some have argued and thus Anguilla becoming an independent member of the Commonwealth, or further integration with a new and updated constitution, the fact is that the status quo cannot remain as is in light of the jurisdiction’s changed circumstances. Electoral and constitutional reform has been debated in Anguilla since around 2000, with several draft constitutions being proposed and, to date, no firm action has been taken.
Irma: An inflection point for Anguilla
Ironically, Irma struck during the 50th anniversary of Anguilla’s bid to secede from the Associated State of St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. During the celebrations, the jurisdiction assessed where it was and how far it had come in terms of its development. As the local newspaper, The Anguillian, noted, Irma brought both devastation and opportunity. In the aftermath, it has become clear that things must change not only in the relationship with the U.K. but also within the jurisdiction. More focus must be placed on infrastructural development since most of the government buildings damaged were old, some dating back decades. There is a need for a proper international airport so as not to be so dependent on Princess Juliana on Sint Maarten, a new ferry terminal at Blowing Point, a modern hospital instead of the 32-bed one for 15,000 people opened back in 1988, proper government offices, modern primary and secondary schools (the sole secondary school was built in 1951-52 and opened in January, 1953). Many of these buildings were severely damaged by the storm and a general thrust to economically develop the jurisdiction is especially important in light of the fact that the U.K. will soon leave the EU.
In a perverse and strange way, Irma has put Anguilla in a position where it is better able to forge this new relationship with the U.K. and leverage the extensive media coverage which it received to market its tourism product. I have opined to some colleagues that Irma did more to promote Anguilla in the international media than the Anguilla Tourist Board and government did in the previous 40 years. It is no understatement to say that this is the most international media coverage that Anguilla has ever received and while only CNN and Channel 4 sent film crews to the jurisdiction, the BBC, Sky News, Al Jazeera and many others covered Irma and thus the jurisdiction extensively throughout the lead-up to, during and after the storm passed.
I had never seen Anguilla on so many TV networks, in online articles, social media or platforms or newspapers before. Thus, the jurisdiction has a much greater profile which can only do it immense good going forward.
Hurricane Donna in 1960, a category 4 hurricane which followed a similar path to Irma and destroyed what little existed in Anguilla at that time, along with the events of 1967-69, set the stage for the jurisdiction’s modern development in the last part of the 20th century to now. Irma is an inflection point which will shape Anguilla’s future for most of the 21st. How its people and government use the opportunities and challenges presented by it will determine how successful the next phase of its development is. The next months and years will be very interesting, and it is the writer’s hope that the most can be made of what Irma has wrought to the island but only for its development and good.