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Inmarsat’s Ben Colton reflects on Operation Irma

Team Rubicon partners Inmarsat support our disaster response work with cutting-edge satcomms, as well as the time and effort of their team. Inmarsat employee Ben Colton recently deployed with TR to support our response to hurricanes in the Caribbean.

Within 24 hours of registering my interest to join a Team Rubicon UK recce deployment to the Caribbean I was heading down to the Team Rubicon UK HQ in Chilmark. After meeting my team (Awesome Strike Team Echo!) we received a pre-deployment briefing, equipment and supplies and were assigned roles (I was the comms specialist) before bedding down for a few hours and then getting a mini bus to Gatwick. I then boarded a flight, courtesy of Virgin Atlantic, to Antigua which was acting as a logistics hub for Team Rubicon UK’s wider Caribbean deployment.

Ben was one of the team who met Richard Branson as well as members of the military supporting relief efforts in BVI (Image: Ellie Mackay)

Antigua had barely been touched by Hurricane Irma, even though nearby Barbuda had been devastated by the storm. Seeing the drone footage of Barbuda taken by another Team Rubicon UK team was a sobering thought for what to expect over the coming weeks. Within 36 hours I was tasked to accompany three tonnes of aid from Antigua to Tortola, British Virgin Islands in a small twin propeller charter plane. This aid was predominately enough ShelterBox equipment to provide emergency shelter for 440 people and it was imperative that this aid was delivered and safely stored before Hurricane Maria was expected to hit BVI so that these shelter kits could be distributed immediately.

Once I arrived at Beef Island airport, and met my new six person team (Awesome Strike Team Delta!), we unloaded the shipment with our local partner the Rotary family in BVI, and transported the ShelterBox aid from the airport to a location where it would be safe during Hurricane Maria.

During this journey I got to witness first-hand the devastation experienced by BVI from Hurricane Irma. The local vegetation was now non-existent with hardly a leaf left on a tree, and in most cases the bark having been stripped off as well. Vehicles had been thrown down hills, the majority of houses had experienced damage and the storm drains, streets, parks and local countryside were littered with debris. There were 24 hour curfews preceding Maria and people were queuing for hours to buy food, water and fuel.

Ben witnesses hurricane damage in Tortola (Image: Simon Gee)

The immediate aim for Strike Team Delta was to assist Rotary in repairing Community Shelters before Hurricane Maria was estimated to hit within two days. We conducted damage assessments and prioritised two buildings that could jointly shelter 180 people. Both buildings needed windows and doors boarding up and the larger Multipurpose Complex also had extensive roof damage. Team Rubicon UK Greyshirts worked hard with our partners Serve On, Rotary and with spontaneous local volunteers to safeguard both shelters in the days and hours before Hurricane Maria hit.

The team then hunkered down for over eight hours as Maria passed BVI before we went out on the ground to conduct damage assessments.  Although Maria was not as strong as Irma, the Hurricane still caused significant damage to the local community. We were pleased to see the shelters remained secure, however the local fire station and elderly peoples home had sustained damage and were in an uninhabitable condition. We immediately began mucking out both buildings which were eventually finished after the arrival of our 40 person main deployment.

The next seven days then went by in a blur as the team organised locally donated transport, accommodation and additional logistics for the main body. Team Rubicon UK were also tasked by the local government’s Ministry of Education to conduct damage assessments of seven local schools and clear debris so that they could reopen before the new term started in November. Whilst I was still in-country the main team finished cleaning the elderly peoples home, fire station and three schools (that jointly schooled over 1200 children) and converted a gymnasium into multiple classrooms so that local examinations could proceed as per usual.

Two and a half weeks after initially flying out, I boarded a UK military A400M aircraft back to Barbados and then flew on a commercial flight home to Gatwick. Needless to say I slept the whole way!

The experience I had in BVI was at times adrenaline filled, sometimes frustrating but throughout I always felt humbled and fortunate enough to be working alongside people rebuilding their lives. To be sharing this experience with a tight-knit group of Greyshirts that became firm friends made this a fulfilling and unique experience.

Join Team Rubicon UK as a volunteer today.

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