OP RUMAN – Hurricanes, Helicopters and Hopefulness

Squadron Leader Ted Sellers, SO2 A5 Infrastructure Operations, works alongside 20 Works Group Royal Engineers (Air Support) and 12 (Force Support) Engineer Group at RAF Wittering. He recently deployed to the US Virgin Islands, in the wake of Hurricane Irma, in support of Operation RUMAN. The following is a personal account of his experience:

I was just about to attend the RAF Wittering Annual Reception when I was pulled into an emergency video teleconference with Permanent Joint Headquarters, 8 Engineer Brigade, 12 (Force Support) Engineer Group, 20 Works Group Royal Engineers (Air Support), and 170 (Infra Support) Engineer Group. A few hours later I was deployed on Operation RUMAN. Mission: to conduct humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) operations in Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Exact destination: unknown. Specific task: less clear. Duration: anyone’s guess.
Hurricane Irma, an extremely powerful and catastrophic Category 5 hurricane had battered the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and Turks and Caicos Islands some 36 hours previous and, notwithstanding that HMS Mounts Bay was already in situ in the Caribbean with Royal Marines, Royal Engineers, equipment and aid on board, the UK was coming under pressure to increase its contribution to the HADR effort. Within days, over 2,000 British troops and tonnes of food, water, survival, shelter and hygiene kits and other aid had been flown to the region. CH47 and Puma helicopters, making up the Joint Helicopter Force (JHF) were also deployed to provide an intra-theatre, littoral operations capability, moving troops, supplies and essential equipment, as well as providing emergency air lift to evacuate vulnerable and sick civilians to safety or medical aid.
Having arrived in Barbados late on Friday night, I was told I was to be embedded with 40 Commando Royal Marines, and that I’d be flying to United States Virgin Islands (USVI). St Croix had been unscathed by Hurricane Irma and it presented a convenient, safe location from which to forward mount UK Task Force elements and disaster relief aid into the affected British Virgin Islands.
Introduced to my namesake, Ed – the 40 Commando Ops officer – he eyeballed my RAF rank slide, looked me coldly in the eye, and demanded “Can you survive?” After looking over my shoulder and resisting an urge to provide a sarcastic response, I checked myself, applied some emotional intelligence (he was clearly tired and emotional), and assured him that I could look after myself and would not be, as I could hear him thinking, a liability.
After landing at Henry E. Rohlsen Airport (HERA), St Croix, USVI, my newly-found Bootneck associates and I found a space on the floor of the airport terminal, along with a couple of Sapper colleagues, to catch a few hours’ sleep.
I was asked if JHF (Puma detachment specifically) could operate from HERA. With no obvious solution to the required infra and real-life support to support JHF, I set about liaising with our US National Guard hosts, USVI Airport Authority and local aviation firms to ascertain the art of the possible. Within a few hours I confirmed to the UK Joint Task Force Headquarters in Barbados that HERA could support JHF operations, but that it would be under austere conditions and with some, not insurmountable, constraints.
Twenty-four hours later the JHF contingent (33 Sqn from RAF Benson) was on its way from RAF Brize Norton, with the first of three Pumas, on board a C17. I managed to secure a large, disused, airport authority building, unused for eight years, to be our domestic and operations accommodation – there was no electricity, no running water and no air conditioning. I was also secured a hangar for Puma maintenance, from a local private company (Bohlke), and engaged with the airport authority and local contractors to get portaloos, porta showers, and electricity and waste management contracts in place to support the detachment. The heat was stifling with average temperatures of 30oC and humidity adding to the discomfort.
Impressively, while I was working in the background trying to provide real-life support, 40 Commando, Royal Engineers and JHF were already on task providing security, infrastructure support and an air bridge for troops and aid into Anguilla, Tortola, and Turks and Caicos Islands. Three days in, the devastating effect of Hurricane Irma had been well reported; the task seemed enormous and we still had no idea how long the operation would last for. The UK Task Force though had made an immediate impact, bringing a semblance of order and hope to a desperate situation.
As security improved, relief aid, more troops and logistics flowed in, and the Royal Engineers began to restore essential services.
The local population at BVI and Anguilla, and indeed St Croix, expressed their heart-felt appreciation for everything the UK Task Force was doing. Sympathetic of our austere living conditions, and the fact that we had been on 24-hour ration packs for nearly two weeks, a local dignitary, Anne Golden, brother of the HERA Airport Operations Manager, Arnold, contacted me to offer the UK detachment some ‘relief’ from the operational ration packs. That evening, Anne arrived with pizzas, chicken and chips, fish and chips and ice coolers filled with water and fizzy drinks for over 100 UK personnel, including Royal Marines, JHF, Tactical Medical Wing and Royal Signals personnel. The positive effect on morale was instantaneous.
Over the next couple of days, as the JHF Puma detachment worked hard to support 40 Commando, a close eye was kept on the meteorological reports. It soon became apparent that Hurricane Maria was heading our way; we began to make preparations to hunker down and sit it out. The speed at which the storm intensified was staggering; in a matter of just a few hours it had increased from a Category 3 to a Category 5 hurricane; sustained winds of 175 mph, gusting 200+ mph, were forecast. The decision was taken to evacuate UK Forces from USVI to Barbados. Maria was subsequently reported to be the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane on record; it caused catastrophic devastation across the Caribbean and Bahamas, including Dominica, USVI, Turks and Caicos Islands, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico.
Returning to St Croix, 36 hours later, the ‘advance party’ was met with scenes of destruction, but also open arms and immense gratitude from our US hosts for our swift return. The maintenance hangar that JHF had previously been using had sustained significant damage that would have led to the loss of the Pumas had they not been evacuated. The building we had been using for domestic accommodation and JHF ops looked like an IED had gone off inside, with broken glass, debris and flooding throughout. The main airport building was also flooded, having sustained significant roof damage; mains power was out across the island; power lines and trees had been felled; light aircraft destroyed; roofs ripped off; buildings and small businesses across the airport complex were trashed; residents made homeless. A disoriented horse from a local stable wandered across the airfield as we came in to land… the FOD hazard was extensive to say the least.
While at St Croix we felt morally compelled to assist our US hosts following the devastation that Maria inflicted. Irrespective of Service, cap badge, rank, trade or branch, the effort from UK personnel was tremendous. Assisting the airport authorities get the airport open, working with the US National Guard to enable the AeroMed firm to get airborne to evacuate casualties, while continuing to deliver air support to the UK Joint Task Force Commander’s intent was an incredible achievement.
Operation RUMAN was, in some respects, one of the most difficult, but most rewarding tours I have undertaken. The positive attitude of those inhabitants who lived through the hurricanes, and who lost so much, was utterly inspiring.
It will take months for the islanders to start to get back on their feet, and years to get anywhere close to rebuilding their lives.
Everyone involved in Operation RUMAN should be extremely proud of what was achieved. From my perspective, I could not have wished for a better deployment to end my tour as SO2 A5. Infrastructure Operations.