Tuesday, October 16, 2001
As Hurricane Iris neared the coast of Belize and even in the immediate
aftermath of her landfall, the public's attention was focussed on the
coastal communities of Placencia, Seine Bight and Independence. Not only
were these villages accessible, but they were also familiar places to
many Belizeans as tourist or business destinations. Their residents had
many strong ties to the power brokers in Belize City and Belmopan. But
as the story of Belize's worst natural disaster since 1961 unfolds, it
is becoming apparent that the bulk of Iris' victims inhabit the inland
villages of the Toledo District. These are people whose food is often
home grown, are likely to sleep under a thatched roof and whose most
popular fashion accessory is a machete, not a cell phone. News 5's
Jacqueline Woods and Brent Toombs spent the long weekend criss-crossing
the thirty-mile wide swatch of destruction that crossed Toledo like a
giant weed-whacker...and have returned with the following report.
Jacqueline Woods, Reporting
It's one week since the storm hit southern Belize, but villagers are
still overwhelmed by the massive destruction that surrounds them. In
Mango Walk, a village of farm workers, ninety-eight percent of the
houses were destroyed and that's where we found the Guzman family trying
to salvage whatever they could from what was once was their home. Amidst
the ruins, the family has found some comfort in the form of running
water and electricity thanks to a nearby generator. But like the other
residents, the storm took nearly everything else that they had.
Juan Guzman, Resident, Mango Walk
"Like food and clothes, some of the people do not have clothes and they
need shoes, they lost everything."
Most of the villagers worked for the Monkey River Estates, which owns
eight companies in the citrus and banana industries.
Soeren Soerinsen, Owner, Monkey River Estates
"We have lost our entire crop and we figure we have lost between ten and
fifteen percent of the trees itself. We expect that it'll take some time
before the plantation will be back."
There is no adequate shelter in Mango Walk for the families who have
been left homeless. Instead, the people are living in deplorable
conditions at Soerinsen's factory.
It is alleged that Soerinsen has told the workers that in order for them
to get food and water they must work for the company. Although Soerinsen
denied the allegation, NEMO Stann Creek was informed of the situation
and dispatched a team to investigate. NEMO representative, Harry Arzu
warned the company that they will be monitoring them to ensure that the
villagers are getting their supplies.
In Bella Vista Village, over three hundred people are homeless. While
the village chairman Santos Turcios feels his community should be happy
with the supplies they have received, other villagers were complaining
that officials aren't doing enough.
"Especially the people who are behind at the savannah with no house,
with not even one plate or spoon. And we don't even have a surety for no
house, not even a piece of land. We are into the south part of Bella
Vista, not even one lot that they can say we're sure of our place, our
house, our place to stay. So what we surely need right now is a place so
that we can put our kids and organise ourselves and plant our corn."
This used to be the church in Bladen Village. Thirty-five persons sought
shelter here until the structure came down on top of them.
"Here in Bladen Village, most of the thatched houses went down during
Hurricane Iris, leaving three hundred and seventy-five people homeless.
There is no temporary shelter in this community, the villagers have been
forced to seek shelter under what has been left of their collapsed
Alejandro Sho, Member, Bladen Village Council
"We need at least a tent or tarp where we can shelter them when it's
raining. We have a cohune, but all of the tree bruk down and we can't
find the cohune leaves again."
As we made our way along the Southern Highway, we passed a supply truck
giving out food and clothing. Some areas as well were receiving medical
In Silver Creek, the storm destroyed ninety-seven houses. Most of the
families are now living inside the school building and remaining homes.
While the women were in charge of preparing food for the village, the
men were busy rebuilding. The villagers say while they are doing the
best with what they have available, they are in dire need of building
Juan Chun, Teacher, Silver Creek Village
"We urgently need building materials. We are getting food, but we still
need more. We are not getting the supply we need because of the
percentage of people that are within the shelters."
The situation only got worse as we travelled further west into the
Toledo District. We observed villagers bathing and washing clothes in
rivers that may be contaminated. Likewise, water from pumps may also be
unsafe. Already there have been reports of children showing signs of
conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye.
San Pedro Columbia, one of the districts largest villages, was also
devastated. The storm took homes, the village church and badly damaged
the school building. However, university students from the School of
International Training, were busy helping in the rebuilding effort.
Jeremy Enriquez, Group Leader, School of Int'l Training
"We felt that we wanted to assist as much as possible in getting the
communities back together. We've done some work in San Antonio Village,
help in tearing down the school building that was already dilapidated.
And the Alcalde of San Pedro Columbia also invited us to help here with
the school to do some clean up."
As the group laboured to repair the school building, village children
drew pictures to help them cope with the tragedy they had experienced.
"We have a picture of the hurricane that one of the children drew. You
can see the people and the chickens and the cars and rivers and the
trees falling over, the houses. Things flying everywhere, it looks
The people of Toledo not only lost their homes. The storm also
devastated their farms, destroying the crops that provide most
residents' only source of food and income.
"This is Pueblo Viejo Village, thirty-one miles west of Punta Gorda Town
in the Toledo District. As we made our way towards Pueblo Viejo, we
passed a number of other communities that have been devastated by
Hurricane Iris. Here is Pueblo Viejo, many of the families thatch houses
are down, leaving eighty percent of the community homeless."
Domingo Salam, Teacher, Pueblo Viejo Village
"This will affect the village tremendously, in terms of people. Their
livelihood is there no more. They need psychological assistance or
counselling right now. They lost all of their homes."
While we were in the village a truck had arrived with supplies donated
by the students of Escuela Secondaria Mexico in Corozal.
Patrociana Sho, Principal, Escuela Mexico
"I believe in giving. We only do not give of what we have, but of what
we are. We brought some supplies that were donated by the students and
staff of Escuela Mexico and that is what we're here to deliver. We also
intend to stay here to camp out for a five day period to see in what way
we can help the community before we go back."
Further up the road in Jalacte, the children were not scrambling for
food, but waited in long lines to receive some clothing and toys that
had just arrived in the village.
"This is San Vicente, the most western village in the Toledo District,
and the last community to feel the wrath of Hurricane Iris before it to
moved into Guatemala."
The village lost many houses and even the school building was blown off
its foundation. Providing shelter for the residents of San Vicente,
along with the thousands of other hurricane victims in Stann Creek and
Toledo, presents an almost overwhelming challenge. However, Marcial Mes,
Minister of Rural Development and Area Representative for Toledo West,
says his government has committed to construct three thousand houses.
Marciel Mes, Area Representative, Toledo West
"We are looking at homes that will withstand hurricane breeze. So we're
thinking of building concrete and zinc top."
These new homes may alter the look of traditional Mayan villages. But
after the destruction visited by hurricane Iris, housing is only one
aspect of life in rural Toledo that will be changed profoundly for many
years to come.
A total of thirty-eight villages in the Toledo and Stann Creek Districts
have been affected by Hurricane Iris.