Former Lancaster student home after leading UK hurricane response in Caribbean

Chris Austin. Photo credit: DFID/Watkins
Chris Austin. Photo credit: DFID/Watkins
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Former Lancaster University student Chris Austin has returned home after deploying to the Caribbean, where he led the UK’s response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

Chris works for the UK Government’s Department for International Development, and was tasked with ensuring the UK Government’s emergency response helped those affected as quickly and effectively as possible.

Chris Austin. Photo credit: DFID/Watkins

Chris Austin. Photo credit: DFID/Watkins

Chris, who studied for his Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Lancaster University between 1992 and 1993, was deployed to the Caribbean in September as head of the UK taskforce.

“It was my job to make sure we put all of the UK Government’s people, assets and equipment to the best use, in a way that helps those affected by the hurricanes to recover and return to normal life as quickly as possible,” the 55-year-old said.

“My initial thoughts on arriving in post were twofold, possibly three.

“One: I was initially struck by the size and scale of what we were dealing with. There are several small islands that were affected by the Hurricanes, spread over 1,000 nautical miles.

Chris Austin. Photo credit: DFID/Watkins

Chris Austin. Photo credit: DFID/Watkins

“When I started (on September 14), the damage to electricity and telephone cables meant there was precious little mobile phone or email coverage within the islands never mind between them; and lots of areas were simply inaccessible.

“This meant that any form of communication, or getting accurate feedback on who was where and needing what form of assistance, was a real challenge.

“Two: In addition to the logistical challenges, there was also the political complexity of what we were dealing with, given that most of the affected islands are British overseas territories and deemed too wealthy to qualify for Overseas Development Assistance.

“And finally: I was coming to the West Indies at the wrong time to watch cricket.

Chris Austin. Photo credit: DFID/Watkins

Chris Austin. Photo credit: DFID/Watkins

“That all said, I’ve been in and around international development for 33 years, and the response I witnessed in the Caribbean surpassed anything I’ve seen before.

“This was by no means a normal situation – two category five hurricanes after there’d never been one before – and nor was the UK Government’s response “off the shelf”.

“To lead a team of 2,500 people who had the knowledge, the experience and the flexibility to play whatever hand they got dealt and to still make the best of it, was truly inspiring and humbling.

“The humanitarian’s collaboration with the military is talked about often, and over the last few years I honestly believe we have got better at it. We’ve learnt lessons from our joint response to Haiti, the Philippines and Ebola, and there is now a mutual respect and understanding of what each party can bring to the table.

“From our side, we simply could not have provided the substantial and effective relief response we did without the men and women in uniform who got out there from day one, rolled their sleeves up and started clearing debris, fixing power and water systems, and working alongside local people and the local governments. I tip my hat to them all.

“The resilience of my civilian and military colleagues was only surpassed by the courage and determination of the locals, many of whom I had the great pleasure of getting to know across the islands during my deployment.

“They are determined to get back on their own feet, and are doing just that already: making schools and clinics more robust, fixing power and water supplies, getting the economy moving again.

“It will take time and energy for the affected islands to build back better, and the UK will be with them all the way.