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In 16 years of Royal Air Force service, regular and reserve, I have served in Afghanistan, throughout the Middle East and at various spots in Africa and beyond. None of this prepared me for what I found when I deployed to the Caribbean on 8 September – at 12 hours’ notice – to support the UK’s massive humanitarian aid and disaster relief operation in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Irma – a violent, Category Five hurricane – cut a swathe through the region in early September and was followed within a fortnight by Hurricane Maria. Hard as I tried, my photography could scarcely capture the sense of loss and devastation the islands suffered.
My deployment took me to countries throughout the Caribbean, where I had to help record the story and the relief effort. The British Virgin Islands (BVI) linger in my mind for many reasons. Hurricane Irma stripped BVI’s trees bare, tore rooves from sturdy houses and lobbed cars, cargo containers and aircraft around like Matchbox toys. This was formerly a place of rolling green hills and neat houses, turned into a traumatised wasteland painted in shades of brown and grey.
I found the same in Turks & Caicos, a beautiful territory of turquoise seas and white beaches dotted with pink conch shells. Those shells now lay alongside rusting shipping containers tossed to shore, while half-sunk hulks lurked just out to sea. My pictures scarcely do justice to the overwhelming sadness of seeing places in such torment.
The damage to property was colossal, but the damage to people’s lives was the thing that I found truly hard to comprehend. I spoke to people throughout BVI and Turks & Caicos about their ordeals. One conversation sticks in my mind, with a BVI resident whose entire life’s property had been reduced to the contents of a holdall. In tears, she told me she couldn’t be sure close friends had survived at all. We hugged before she left on a US Air Force aircraft, uncertain if she’d ever return. I think about her often now – and of the other people I met along the way.
Among those people were the incredible folk involved in the relief effort. More than 2,000 military and civilian staff and NGOs manned a round-the-clock operation, led by the Department for International Development, to get aid and expertise to where it was needed. While making photographs for the RAF, I was privileged to patrol alongside Royal Marines, to fly alongside RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force aircrew, and to interview combat engineers about their work to get schools up and running. Every man and woman there was determined to keep aid flowing around the region and to get countries back on their feet.
September and October took me on a journey into the hearts of communities reeling from disasters of unbelievable scale and fury. I remain stunned by their ordeal and, equally, by their staggering will to rebuild and recover. Undefeated, they are concentrating on getting back to business and, little by little, they are succeeding. For that reason, I left in hope for their future.
The Caribbean island of Dominica was especially badly hit by Hurricane Maria, and still needs support to rebuild. Please consider making a donation to the Government of Dominica’s official appeal: you will help to make a difference.