The UK responded “extremely fast” to help Caribbean communities devastated by Hurricane Irma, Boris Johnson has said amid criticism that British support was too slow and not enough.
As he travelled to the storm-ravaged region, the Foreign Secretary said his visit is a “very important statement” by the Government to show it is “here for UK nationals” and is a “sign of our absolute commitment to them”.
The chief minister of the British overseas territory of Anguilla backed Mr Johnson, saying he had called “within hours” of the passage of the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.
Victor Banks said the £32 million pledged in aid to territories in the region is “significant”, but added “it is not enough” and estimated the bill to repair his island’s infrastructure alone could reach £1 billion.
Speaking to the Press Association on a Virgin Atlantic flight as he headed towards the British territories, Mr Johnson said: “Most fair-minded people have said that the UK responded extremely fast and extremely well.
“We had (landing ship dock) RFA Mounts Bay in position in the region before the hurricane struck – it would have been totally absurd to bring troops in or bring heavy aircraft during the storm itself.”
Hundreds of UK troops and 50 police officers have been sent to the British Virgin Islands, where around 100 “very serious” prisoners escaped from jail after the hurricane.
Mr Johnson said hundreds more troops were being deployed to the region.
“The military presence is really ratcheting up now,” he said.
“There were about 700 troops in the region, that has now gone up to 1,000. It will go up to 1,250 in the course of the next few days.”
During his short visit to Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, Mr Johnson will meet governors and other officials leading the recovery work, and will see first hand some of the most hard-hit places.
The Government had faced claims that the UK had done less to evacuate its citizens than other nations and did not have the correct equipment in place to deal with the situation.
As the storm-ravaged communities begin to rebuild, the costs are likely to mount.
Mr Banks told the Press Association: “We just want an opportunity to create a platform for economic take-off. That means our airport, our ports and our road infrastructure… these things need critical attention.
“I am talking about real capital infrastructure development by the British Government. At the end of the day, the £10 million to £15 million which is going to come to us is not going to be sufficient.”
The former attorney general of Anguilla, Rupert Jones, described the £32 million in aid as a “drop in the Caribbean Sea”.
Writing in The Guardian, Mr Jones said: “Johnson said on Monday that £28 million of that has already (been) spent. Are we to believe it will only release a further £4 million? This would be derisory – it would not even pay to rebuild one school. I am sure they will do much better.
“The Foreign Secretary has also pledged to match taxpayers’ donations to the Red Cross. I just hope that we have not arrived at government-by-crowdfunding.”
Mr Johnson said the hurricane was “an unprecedented event, an unprecedented catastrophe” for the people who live in the worst-hit parts of the Caribbean.
“What they’re seeing is an unprecedented UK response, but I want to stress it is not just for the short term, we are going to be there for the long term as well,” he added.
The Royal Navy’s fleet flagship has set sail for the Caribbean loaded with long-term emergency supplies for British territories devastated by the storm.
HMS Ocean left Gibraltar on Tuesday night stacked with more than 200 pallets of aid including timber, buckets, bottled water, food, baby milk, bedding and clothing.
The ship is also taking pick-up trucks donated by the Gibraltar government, the Royal Navy said.