Following is the report I turned into the Board of the Tropical Conservation
Foundation. I serve as Chairman. As I have previously written, the TCF
operates the Belize Agroforestry Research Center outside of San Pedro
Columbia in the Toledo District. We bought this farm because of its trees.
The previous owners had left most of them intact and it was a magnificent
showplace. We had about 75 acres under cultivation. Not just cacao and
coffee, but almost 300 other economic plants as well. BARC serves as a
education center. We have hosted permaculture classes, school groups,
environmental groups and researchers of all kinds. It is an especially
great place for birders.
I could tell from
the Internet that we were getting slammed. Still it took me almost three
weeks to clear my schedule so I could see the damage for myself and begin
I am back from BARC and have much to report. Words can't really do it so
you are really going to have to wait for my photos (expected Monday) or see
it for yourselves. We also have to schedule a meeting and I am hoping we
can do this on Tuesday evening, as I will be in Canada for the rest of the
week. So how about Purple Chopstix at 6:00 pm? This so far is okay with
Mark and Hank. I would invite you all here, but it is pretty cramped.
Getting to Belize was easy; Continental upgraded me to first class seats.
Customs was also a breeze. I paid about 10% duty on the new goods I carried
in. My friend Michael picked me up at the airport
and took me into Belize City to purchase supplies. We could not get into
Spanish Lookout because the water was too high so we completed our shopping
in Belmopan. The next morning, after helping Michael round up some horses
and his other chores, we headed down to San Pedro Columbia. We made it in
three hours from Belmopan, a ride that used to take closer to 10 hours
before the Southern Highway was paved.
I carried in a huge amount of supplies. Not knowing what we faced, I made
sure to have provisions for myself and a crew for 8 days. I certainly did
not want to be a burden to anyone local, they had enough problems. So
besides the chain saw and tarps and 240 pounds of gear I carried from the
states, I purchased in Belize a wide assortment of food items, 5 gallons of
gas, chain oil
and engine oil, 5 gallons of water, 50 pounds of nails, a huge assortment of
tools and many other provisions and gifts. It was quite a while till we got
this all hauled up to the new building.
I knew we were in trouble when I saw Big Falls. It was also in the direct
center of the hurricane. Most every house was damaged or destroyed
including Mr. King's modern home next to the Texaco station. Every tree of
any size was on its side except for some whose trunks were still standing
but had been snapped off 10 feet in the air. Only the coconut trees were
Columbia was no better. Most every house had some damage. Many were gone
altogether. Even the church, where many people sought shelter from the
storm, had lost about 1/3 of its roof. Eladio lost his thatch house and his
kitchen and lost some of the roof of his new concrete house. All over
Columbia there were signs of new construction. White tarp roofs were the
It was great getting back to our parking spot by the river. Mrs. Marie was
sitting in her usual spot on her porch, almost like she was waiting for us.
Dolis soon walked by on his way into town. He was quite happy to see us and
immediately turned around and helped make our trip up the river much easier.
Jorge quickly greeted us and so we got to unload the weighty items into
Jorge's dory and then drive Michael's truck to the end of the new road by
Alfonso Chi's house. It was then just a quick walk down the hill to our
usual river crossing.
The river was quite swollen from the recent rains, though not as high as it
gets during the July/August peak of the rainy season. It was full of tree
limbs making navigation difficult. It also was not near as fun to swim in.
The current was strong and it was quite chocked with sticks. There was no
place to enter the river where you did not have to climb over a pile of
The best news was that Dolis got the spring water lines repaired. We had
to the drying slab near his house that served as the washing spot for our
whole stay. My water filter got smashed by the airline, but it did not
matter as the spring was running clean and gave me no problems.
We barely had time to survey the damage before dark. Our main building was
destroyed and our second building had extensive damage. The place I would
have sheltered during the storm, behind a concrete block wall, proved to be
quite unsafe as the wall had fallen smashing all of our bee equipment
underneath it. Dolis's kitchen was destroyed as was the bamboo house.
Dolis's ancient old house, that was already on its last leg from termites,
survived well and sheltered the frightened family during the storm.
Michael and I swept out our one surviving building and set up camp. The
solar panels were not charging the batteries, so we had no choice but to
quickly go to sleep after dark.
In the morning, the full impact of the destruction hit us. Trees were down
everywhere. We bought the BARC property because of its huge trees. As far
as the eye could see, they were all down. Twisted piles of trees wound
around trees lay everywhere. Our surviving building had trees piled up on
three sides of it. The concrete block wall in its lower floor was toppled
right on top of all the beekeeping equipment stored there. If I were there
in that storm, my most logical place to shelter would have been under that
wall. If so, I would have been dead. The composting privy had at least
seven big trees in a big jumble on its roof
When we went through the village, I had put out the word that I was hiring
helpers the next day. I especially wanted Eladio's help. I was quite
relieved to see a group of six men, including Eladio, walking up the path
ready for work the next morning. Our first priority was recovering the
herbarium. For those of you who have not seen it, Duane Houck spent a huge
amount of time collecting pressing and cataloging the Flora of Belize. It
was several hundred different plants all arranged by family in a
professional herbarium cabinet that he drove down from Tennessee. It had
been located on the second floor of the main building and now was somewhere
under several feet of wood and thatch rubble.
It took us most of the first day to clear enough wood out of the way to get
to the herbarium. It had been swept off the second floor, landed hard on
its bottom and then absorbed the weight of the building falling on top of
it. It was lying on its back which meant that water was getting inside of
it and soaking the specimens and books stored inside. We pulled it to
safety and then began the three day long task of laying out the hundreds of
pages in the sun to dry. Because the cabinet was almost upside down, the da
mage was pretty much reserved to the families higher in the alphabetical
order. The A's and B's were severely damaged. The Compositaceae, the
largest family, had extensive damage. The D's through F's had some damage,
mostly water stains at the top of the page. Some of the Flora of Guatemala
books had some water damage, otherwise the collection was saved. The
cabinet itself got pretty bent up, but a lot of pounding got it to the point
where the door would close. We dried everything out and carried it to the
second floor of the new building. So, the collection was saved and is quite
The chain saw I carried down was really important. It was in use pretty
much 11 hours per day every day that I was there. There were just so many
trees down that you could not move around. It took several hours just to
clear a path from the original building to the newer building, a distance of
not more than 75 feet. Trees were also smashed onto the roof of the kitchen
structure. This damaged the roof and smashed the connections from the water
tank into the sinks.
The chainsaw the Duane carried down for Dolis was also working perfectly,
and this was important. It was not just simply cutting up trees, the trees
were all fallen and wrapped around each other. It was hard to tell which
branch was putting weight on which and which way a branch would twist as you
cut it. So it was a massive game of pick-up-sticks, the penalty for
guessing wrong is that your saw would get bound up in the cut. This was why
having two saws going was so important. There were times we had both saws
bound and then the machetes would rescue us.
In all of my time there, I had never used a chainsaw. I was impressed with
how easily these tropical hardwoods cut, as they say, like butter. I am
used to having to sharpen the teeth of my saw at each fill of gasoline, the
Eastern hardwoods I am used to are really hard and abrasive. But the
tropical hardwoods are actually really soft when green and I could go all
day without a sharpening. This is similar to the lesson I learned years ago
when I tried to chop the bush up north with a machette. The hardness will
tear up your hand in a few minutes.
After the first day of working on taking apart the downed building, we split
up into two crews. One continued to tear apart the thatch, it took a couple
of additional days to clean up the coffee below the building and then
mulching it with the massive amount of wet thatch we stripped from the roof.
When we stripped the roof off two years ago to re-thatch, it took only a few
hours. It was much harder to cut the thatch out of the collapsed rubble.
It took a crew of 4 almost two full days to cut the thatch apart. It was
the biggest thatch roof ever built in the village. A magnificent building.
We salvaged dozens of poles, but they will not be of much good to us. There
is no way we can build with thatch for at least two years. The cahoon trees
are pretty much okay, but they lost all their leaves. So we have no choice
but to re-build with "zinc", galvanized roofing that the Mennonites roll out
in Spanish Lookout.
Which means we have to buy sawn rafters, ceiling joists and perlins. And
the building will need gutters. Add to this the fact that the Malaysians
have stopped logging in the Columbia Forest Reserve (Yay!) and Young's mill
got blown apart in the storm and that every one else needs wood right now.
I know everybody would like to save the thatch roof on the school/dorm
building, but there is just no way. We will build with thatch again, but it
will be small sleeping palapas rather than the big dorm rooms. This gives
us an opportunity to upgrade those rooms for the more upscale travelers. We
really can rebuild so those rooms are bug-proof, something we never could do
with the thatch. But they will be hot.
One of my goals was to get a tarp on the flooring that remained in order to
save it until we could rebuild. We tacked up the few remaining wall panels
of the original building into a center line so the temporary roof would shed
water. We got this done on the second day under the treat of rain. The
rains never came but the winds quickly began to tear up the tarp. So the
third day we tightened it up and without a major storm, it should serve well
for a few weeks.
Another goal was to get our insurance coverage. We had both major buildings
insured, not for much, only $7500 each, but what was expected to be our
minimal cost to rebuild. Since we are so remote, Roe and Sons told us we
had to document our own damages and get contractor estimates. Mark found
some good pictures of the buildings before the storm. I took four rolls of
film of the damage. In my short time I was able to find two contractors to
estimate the building and traveled to Belize City to make the claim. I have
now heard from the insurance company. They claim our buildings are under
insured and only want to give us a fraction of their value. More on this
So now we face the decision of where to get the wood. And this involves the
potential of getting one of these newfangled portable sawmills to the farm
and how long this will take. Should we cut our good logs up into timber or
are we better off selling this as veneer wood and buying pine? And it also
brings up the issues with JM who
is moving in this same direction. We can talk about this at the meeting.
We have huge logs down all over the place. Many of these are mahogany and
cedar, but also Laurel and other less desirable species that would do well
for our construction needs. There is a huge amount of wood available with
the right equipment and labor.
It took a crew of 6 of us three full days to clear the trail back to Spice
Hill. At least 500 major trees and limbs were across the trail in that ¾
mile walk. The old cacao was in surprisingly good shape. We always had
problems with way too much shade causing fungus problems in these trees.
Now we have the opposite problem, no shade at all. The hurricane acted like
a weed whip. It seemed to cut off everything, even three-foot diameter
stumps, about 10 feet from the ground. Shrubs lower than that are intact.
We stuck a lot of Madre de Cacao limbs into the ground to give the cacao
some quick shade. Christopher Nesbitt of the Toledo Cacao Cooperative
thought this was important.
The coffee did not do as well; the smaller plants had trouble getting up
over the huge amount of slash that fell on them. So we put a lot of
priority into saving these young groves. And Mark's young white cacao
trees got special attention. I hired the guys to continue the entire week
under Eladio's and Marino's direction. Dolis was great, he worked really
hard with us as well as helped Justina organize the crew's food.
On my third morning there, Dolis said to me that he wanted to work a little
closer to the house, that Justina was sick and he wanted to be near in case
she needed him. I questioned whether Justina needed a doctor. No, he
answered, the midwife was there already. "Midwife? She is going to have a
baby?" Oh yes, said Dolis, like it was no big thing. I did not even
realize she was pregnant. He worked in the bush all morning like it was no
big deal. At lunch he went up to check on his new child, a yet-to-be-named
boy, then spent the afternoon back in the bush. Still, I saw Dolis being a
great dad on many occasions during my visit.
On the last day we beat a path up to the hilltop. It was more for
celebration and taking in the view than any specific task. I had taken a
360 degree panorama shot up there in the spring and I thought the comparison
to what it looks like now would be great. Our hilltop is about 300 feet
higher than most of the farm and offers a view to the ocean (15 miles) and
almost to Honduras, Pine Ridge and Guatemala. What surprised me is you
could see the hurricane path. To the northwest there was a distinct line
where the hurricane had hit. Also to the southeast, though this was not as
clear. Iris was only about 30 miles wide. Where it hit was brown, beyond
that was still bright green. We were slammed right in the middle of it.
My team of workers did great, but we really just scratched the surface.
There is a huge amount of clean-up work and planting needed if we are going
to restore the farm to anything near its former productivity. I estimate
that one-third of our plantings are gone and that we will lose another third
if we don't quickly clean the branches off them and free them from new
competition. We have to go over the place tree by tree deciding which to
keep and which to sacrifice. We have a huge building project as well. The
nursery that we have used to supply our own needs as well as tree to our
neighbors now becomes especially relevant. We need to get thousands of
trees started. Our
crew really wants to keep working. I hope we can find the money to afford
As for the villagers, they are still in shock. One thing is unanimous,
everyone hears how much relief help the government is getting, yet not one
bit of it, other than some tarps and occasional food, has reached the
village. Everyone is convinced that the politicians have put it in their
pockets. They need all sorts of things. If you asked them they would say
food, children's clothing and household goods like sheets and towels. We
can discuss how to best help them during our meeting.
Getting home was even easier than getting in. Christopher came by in his
dory on his way
to work and took me and my now very light baggage down the river. He then
drove me to the PG
airport. I was the only passenger in the Maya Island plane. It was quite
an eye-opener to see the hurricane damage from the air. I did have to take
a taxi into Belize City to file the insurance claim. But I returned to the
airport to find I had been upgraded two first class seats again. The only
is that Continental now flies back to Houston too late to make eastern
So I made the best of my night in Houston by renting a car and visiting a
I thank BARC for partially supporting the costs of this trip (I paid my own
plane fare and some other expenses.) I hope you can join us Tuesday
evening at 6:00 to continue our planning effort.
Tax Deductable contributions can be sent to the Tropical Conservation
c/o Box 18, Guysville, OH 45735
I will be happy to answer any questions anyone on this list might have.
Don E Wirtshafter
[This message has been edited by Marty (edited 12-03-2001).]