October 27, 2020 – After focusing most of 2020 on hurricane relief, the Royal Navy’s Caribbean task force practiced helping an island threatened by a volcano.
Support and command ship RFA Argus made use of the very real threat to the people of Montserrat to roll out disaster relief plans once again.
The two ships have been roaming the region for most of the year, alternating their time between intercepting illegal drug shipments across the Caribbean and training for the aftermath of a hurricane striking British territories.
Although the 2020 hurricane season – now drawing to a close – has been the second busiest on record, thankfully no storm has hit one of the UK’s island communities with full force, requiring the intervention of the task group.
The danger of a volcanic eruption on Montserrat – known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean for its lush vegetation – however, never goes away.
When long-dormant Soufrière Hills volcano erupted in 1995, it destroyed the island’s airport, rendered the capital Plymouth uninhabitable and prompted two thirds of Montserrat’s population to flee.
A quarter of a century later, the island’s remaining populace have carved out new lives in northern Montserrat, built a new airport and established a new capital (Brades) – but they continue to live in the shadow of the volcano… which continues to smolder.
Destroyer HMS Liverpool played a key role in 1995 in evacuating Montserrat’s civilians in the face of the eruption. In 2020, RFA Argus’ dedicated Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief team of soldiers and Royal Marines played out how they might help should Soufrière Hills spew fire and fury again.
The Crisis Response Troop were landed ashore in the deserted wilderness zone on the south side of the island – off limits to inhabitants.
The Commando Helicopter Force flew in a specialist team to set up a mobile landing site by dropping from Merlin helicopters by rope.
They paved the way for teams of combat engineers and medics from 24 Commando Royal Engineers and small teams from 47 Commando Royal Marines and 3 Commando Brigade to fly in to support.
The chance to land in the volcanic exclusion zone is a rare opportunity for the Crisis Response Troop to test themselves and their equipment away from human contact to protect the pandemic ‘bubble’ created aboard Argus.
That ruled out 815 Naval Air Squadron flying scientists from the island’s volcanic observatory around Soufrière Hills in their Wildcat as they would normally do.
Instead, the naval aviators collected aerial photography to assist the local scientific community with their work monitoring the active volcano.
“The squadron has formed a good relationship with the observatory in previous years, and we were keen to continue that this year despite Covid restrictions,” explained Wildcat pilot Lieutenant Jim Carver.
“Due to social distancing measures we were unable to fly the scientists and maintenance crews around the volcanic survey sites, but we were able to gather airborne imagery of parts the volcano that are only accessible by helicopter and pass them back to the researchers.”
Commander Kate Muir, in charge of the UK task group in the Caribbean, said the unique nature of Montserrat’s exclusion zone provided her team with “an exceptional opportunity to refresh its disaster relief skills”.
She continued: “Although we could not meet with anyone from Montserrat, we were really pleased to be able to support the volcano observatory with some photographic survey work.”
She took part in an island radio dial-in with Montserrat’s Governor Andy Pearce, fielding questions as varied as the role of the task force to how the sailors, soldiers and marines might respond to a hurricane in the time of a pandemic.
As the exercise drew to a close, RFA Argus was joined by the other ship in her task group, patrol vessel HMS Medway which is permanently stationed in the Caribbean.