HURRICANE IRIS SLAMS PLACENCIA AND SOUTHERN BELIZE; MANY FEARED DEAD, HUNDREDS OF HOMES AND BUSINESSES DESTROYED; 20 BELIEVED DEAD IN CAPSIZING OF LIVEABOARD DIVE BOAT Hurricane Iris, a compact but powerful storm with winds of 140 mph, has roared through the southern coast of Belize, creating a storm surge as high as 15 feet. Efforts to assess the damage are only beginning, but the storm is believed to have caused many deaths and to have virtually destroyed a number of towns and villages, including much of the Placencia peninsula.

Iris made landfall around 7:30 p.m. Belize time (9:30 p.m. EDT) Monday, October, packing winds of 140 mph and higher. The center of the eye of the Category 4 hurricane appears to have been on the 16-mile long Placencia peninsula, one of Belizeís most important tourism centers.

A live-aboard dive boat, the M/V Wave Dancer operated by Peter Hughes Diving in Coral Gables, Fla., capsized near Big Creek, a deep water port to the west of Placencia. Reports from Belize radio stations and international news agencies are that 20 people died after the 120-foot boat, moored at Big Creek in 12 feet of water, turned on its side. Eleven bodies have been recovered from the ship. A spokesperson for the Peter Hughes organization has said that 28 people were aboard, mostly divers from the Richmond, Va., area.

Another boat, the Vendera, also reportedly capsized with passengers on board, but information on this vessel has not been confirmed.

Other deaths from high water or wind are reported. The total death toll is as yet unknown, but one source put it at 50 or more. Early Tuesday, the Belize goverment could only confirm six dead, all or most tourists.

Most homes and businesses in Placencia village, a Creole village at the south end of the peninsula, and in Seine Bight village, a Garifuna village a few miles north, reportedly have been damaged or destroyed. Love FM, a Belize radio station, is reporting that few houses remain standing and 95 percent of the businesses in Placencia village have been damaged or destroyed. Among the well-known businesses believed destroyed in Placencia village are Ranguana Lodge, Sonnyís, Sea Horse Dive Shop and De Tatch restaurant. Many of the hotels and resorts on the peninsula are thought to have been damaged or destroyed by the high winds and sea surge. At one point, most of the peninsula was under several feet of water.

Money River, a Creole village of about 2,500 people south of Placencia, is believed to have been almost completely destroyed, according to a Belize government information officer quoted by Reuters.

Other nearby villages, including Silver Creek, Independence and Mango Creek, also have reported massive damage. Several schools and other buildings used as hurricane shelters had their roofs blown away.

Farther south, some homes in Punta Gorda Town and in rural Toledo district, an area with many traditional Maya villages with simple thatch houses, have been reported destroyed. Hurricane force winds apparently extended less than 25 miles out from the stormís center, so areas to the north, including Dangriga Town and Hopkins village, received relatively little damage.

Fortunately many residents and tourists on the coast were evacuated before the storm hit. The Placencia peninsula has a population of more than 2,000, with another 5,000 or more living in the Independence area. September and October being the slowest months of the year for tourism in Belize, the number of visitors on the Placencia peninsula is thought to have been relatively low.

According to initial reports, much of Belizeís banana industry, which is centered in south-central and southern Belize, was destroyed by the storm. Significant damage also was done to the citrus and shrimp farming industries.

Belize City, the capital of Belmopan, and northern Belize, including the popular resort islands of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, escaped with little or no damage except for some flooding and, in coastal areas, modest damage due to high waves.

Donations for the relief effort in Belize can be made to the American Red Cross International Response Fund, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013, or to other charities of your choice.

--Lan Sluder
Belize First
Lan Sluder/Belize First