Two Cambridgeshire police officers have returned from the British Virgin Islands following the catastrophic damage caused by hurricane Irma feeling humbled by the three week experience.
The world watched as hurricane Irma took hold of the Caribbean and travelled across the North Atlantic killing more than 120 people with winds of up to 185mph at the end of August.
News bulletins and social media sites were awash with images and videos showing the pure devastation hurricane Irma had left behind but nothing could prepare PC Den Williams and PC Ross Beesley for what they were about to witness.
The pair volunteered, along with more than 50 other officers from across the country, to offer mutual aid in the British Virgin Islands and flew out from RAF Brize Norton to Barbados on 9 September.
PC Williams said: “Words cannot describe the devastation. We saw 40ft containers that had been thrown around, homes without roofs and what was an island full of lush greenery turned into something like what you would see in a Hollywood movie.
“Yet the people were still upbeat. Despite losing everything themselves they were committed to helping others. There was one woman in particular, Janet, who left her own teenage children to come to the aid of those in a children’s home.”
PC Beesley, from Wisbech, said: “We saw it on the TV before we left but you are detached from the pictures and videos. It’s not until you are there that you can smell the sewage in the street, you avoid puddles not knowing if the power cable lying in it is live or not. You are driving round in vehicles that wouldn’t be fit fort purpose in the UK and are witness to many other dangers around you.”
With around 40 per cent of the islands police force unable to work because of the devastation caused to their own lives, the majority of PC Williams and PC Beesley’s time was spent at banks to stop looting and robberies or at supermarkets and fuel stations to prevent panic buying.
PC Beesley said: “The moment we landed and our presence was known, we were starting to make a difference. We were able to take some control and allow everyone to get on with try to rebuild what they had lost.”
It wasn’t long after they arrived that they were put under a 24 hour curfew as hurricane Maria struck the islands.
Their efforts soon turned to offering reassurance to members of the public, giving people lifts from hospital and interacting with the families and children.
The pair were so touched by the community they were working with that they got in touch with the Police Federation and the Police and Crime Commissioner, Jason Ablewhite, and were able to secure a donation to purchase books, toys, pens and pencils for the children.
PC Williams said: “The best part of the trip was seeing the small difference we were making. Seeing the children’s faces when you presented them with small gifts, playing ball with them. You couldn’t put a price on it.
“Being in 40C heat, wearing full body armour and not being able to wash above the neck because of the E.coli in the water was a low. We were living without the basics but we had a roof over our heads, were fed and watered which is more than most had out there.
“I feel very privileged to have had the chance to go.”
PC Beesley added: “The one thing I will take away from the experience was a line from a gentleman who had lost his home, his belongings, everything. He said; ‘I’ve got life and as long as I have that, I can rebuild everything else’.”