UK troops and residents are bracing themselves as “dangerous” Hurricane Maria sweeps through the Caribbean towards British overseas territories already battered by Irma.
After rolling by the British Virgin Islands during the early hours of Wednesday, the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said the storm has decreased to a category four as it begins to barrel towards the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The centre said preparations against a “life-threatening storm surge and rainfall, flooding and destructive winds” should be “rushed to completion”.
Maria has already claimed at least one life, as officials on the French island of Guadeloupe confirmed a person was killed by a falling tree, and another two are missing after their boat sank.
Dominica, where Maria made landfall on Monday, lost nearly all its communications as the storm knocked out phone lines and the island’s broadcast service, and 70% of properties lost their roofs according to reports.
International Development Secretary Priti Patel has described the situation as an “unprecedented crisis” and stressed the UK Government is “working flat out”.
The NHC said: “Little change in strength is forecast during the next 48 hours, and Maria is expected to remain a dangerous major hurricane through Friday.”
Emergency steps are being undertaken on the Turks and Caicos Islands to prepare for the looming onslaught, with sustained wind speeds predicted to reach 140mph from Thursday.
Relief workers are striving to secure debris left strewn after Irma, as loose items have the potential to make the coming hurricane “more hazardous” if it is picked up by high winds.
Brigadier John Ridge, second in command of the UK’s Joint Task Force, said officials are “continuing to track Maria” as it rolls through the Caribbean region.
Ms Patel said: “This is an unprecedented crisis with two hurricanes of such brutal force hitting the Caribbean in less than a fortnight.
“Families have lost their homes, lives have been ripped apart, and the victims of Hurricane Irma are now facing the new threat of Hurricane Maria.
“But they should know, the UK Government is working flat out to put the right supplies in the right places to cope with the fallout from this new hurricane.”
Hurricane warnings remain in place for Turks and Caicos and the BVI.
The Foreign Office is advising against all travel to the BVI, as well as all but essential travel to Montserrat, Turks and Caicos and Anguilla.
Hurricane Maria arrived in the region less than two weeks after Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms in decades.
Dominica suffered “widespread devastation”at the hands of Hurricane Maria, the country’s prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit said – forcing the closure of its airport.
More than 1,300 UK troops are in the Caribbean after being sent to help with relief and repair work after Irma.
An additional 42-strong military resilience team has also been deployed to the BVI, ready to offer support and assistance after Maria.
Brig Ridge said secure buildings, ranging from hotels to government buildings and shelters that are “as safe as possible”, have been identified for the military on to “hunker down in”.
RFA Mounts Bay has moved out the way of the hurricane to safety, but the moment the storm has passed through, the vessel will be “pushed back in again”.
HMS Ocean, which is carrying another 60 tonnes of aid to complement 75 tonnes of relief items which have already arrived, will drop anchor in the region this weekend.
Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This has been a fortnight of just relentless catastrophe.”
He described suggestions that the UK could have reacted quicker to Hurricane Irma as an “utterly unfounded accusation”.