Ships from the Royal Navy's Caribbean task group have linked up in Montserrat as personnel prepare for the region's annual hurricane season.
Almost every year for the past couple of decades, Royal Navy or Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels in the region have been called upon to help island communities. Last autumn a task group assisted the people of the Bahamas following the destructive trail of Hurricane Dorian.
This year the Navy’s permanent presence in the area, HMS Medway, was met by helicopter carrier and support ship RFA Argus to begin planning.
They are using their time off Montserrat to aid the the island, half of which is still out of bounds following eruptions from the Soufrière Hills volcano more than 20 years ago.
The crisis reached its climax in 1997. That year saw much of the capital Plymouth, including the island’s only hospital and airport, buried in mud and ash up to 12 metres deep.
At the time, destroyer HMS Liverpool assisted with the evacuation of islanders to the north side, although two-thirds of the population emigrated to the UK.
With the volcano remaining active, the Royal Navy supports the Montserrat Volcano Observatory by assisting scientists with re-locating seismic sensors and equipment. They do this work every year.
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 what had hit Montserrat.
Merlin pilot Captain Anne Bloechle, a US Marine Corps officer on exchange with 845 Naval Air Squadron, said: “The airborne view of the abandoned city (Plymouth) served as a powerful reminder of the impact of natural disasters – and reinforced the need for Argus’ presence to enable rapid humanitarian relief.”
38-year-old Lieutenant Mark Jones from Plymouth (UK), said: “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.”
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. The ships will also provide support to British citizens overseas amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Cover image: RFA Argus sailing away from the coast of Montserrat in the Caribbean (Picture: MOD).