Tropical Storm Chantal-a successful practice drill

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 11, No. 33            August 23, 2001

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Ambergris Caye suffered no casualties or damage this week due to early warning and divine intervention. Word spread quickly last week about bad weather stirring in the Atlantic and luckily for residents of the island, there was more time to prepare for this inclement weather. Up and down the scale, this storm jumped back and forth from tropical wave to depression, finally emerging as Tropical Storm Chantal. Sustained winds of 65-70 miles per hour maintained her classification as a storm for three days as Ambergris Caye prepared for the worst, remembering lessons taught by Hurricane Keith.

    As early as Saturday, people living in low-lying areas were evacuating their home and/or the island. Throngs of people endured the tropical sun awaiting evacuation by boat or plane on Sunday as the tropical storm warning progressed to a hurricane watch throughout the course of the day. Spawned by ineffective evacuations or the absence of time to leave in the past, a sense of urgency spread among the people of the caye. By Monday noon, it appeared everyone who wanted to leave was safely evacuated. Those who chose to stay behind were kept busy preparing houses, dry docking or safely mooring boats, buying provisions and generally preparing for whatever may come.

    Although the Weather Channel issued a seemingly constant reminder that the storm could strengthen closer to land, fortunately, that never happened. The San Pedro Emergency Committee (SPEC) was called together at 4 p.m. on Saturday. Operations Officer James Janmohamed informed members and the San Pedro Police Department to prepare and be available for action. After reconvening at 8 a.m. Sunday morning, SPEC members assisted in the voluntary evacuation of residents and monitored the storm closely. People needing shelter on the mainland were taken by boat to Bomba on the Northern River where they were met by buses that took them to Orange Walk. At 6 p.m. Sunday, the Government of Belize declared a preliminary Phase I, putting all emergency committees on standby. Although Chantal was technically still a tropical storm, the red flag was raised signaling hurricane conditions were possible and could threaten within 72 hours.

    A staggering amount of evacuations took place in the course of a few day's time. According to SPEC, numbers leaving by sea totaled 4,376 and by air 1,852 for a total of 6,228 people. By 6:30 p.m. Sunday evening a total of 4,747 people had evacuated Ambergris Caye. Evacuation resumed at first light on Monday morning until all transportation stopped at approximately 11:30 a.m. with another 1,481 fleeing the island. Evacuation numbers broken down by provider, total and day were: Tropic Air - 1,204 (987 Sunday/217 Monday); Maya Island Air - 648 (500 Sunday/148 Monday); San Pedro Water Taxi - 2,878 (2300 Sunday/578 Monday); Thunderbolt - 1,100 (800 Sunday, 300 Monday); Majil of Corozal - 160 Sunday; Seaduced - 93 Monday; Aqua Dives - 93 Monday; and Tuff E' Nuff - 60 Monday.

    In the interim of all this, the emergency committee gathered their forces together. Two sections of Belize Defense Force (BDF) soldiers were requested from government to be shared by Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker for matters of security. An additional radio operator and communications equipment were also provided by the BDF for the committee as well as a liaison officer, Captain Michael Joseph. Foot and mobile patrols commenced Sunday at 9:30 p.m. with the combined forces of the San Pedro Police Department and BDF. Six extra BDF soldiers were dispatched  later, three of which assisted a member of the San Pedro police force in securing the north end of the island. This was a request based on incidents reported in that area. During a radio interview with committee members on Sunday it was requested that residents remain calm and that bars close at 10:30 p.m. to facilitate this. A request was issued again on Monday and Tuesday that liquor establishments cease the sale of liquor to maintain order on the island and as a deterrent to crime or inappropriate behavior. The island hurricane shelter located at the San Pedro Roman Catholic School opened its doors Monday morning at 8 a.m. with the help of two more BDF wardens trained in shelter management. The San Pedro High School was designated as an alternate shelter, but was not needed. A total of 85 people were housed in shelter accommodations during the storm.

       SPEC continued to monitor the storm throughout Monday night with members taking four hour shifts in an effort to avoid fatigue. Patrols continued during the night as well. A midnight reconnaissance led by Mr. Janmohamed produced the only emergency evacuation of a family who was frightened because their house appeared unstable because of the wind conditions. High sea water was reported, but it appeared to be draining into the Boca del Rio Lagoon.

    Challenges to the committee during this hurricane evacuation were few. Some difficulty was reported when accessing Internet sites for weather information. Also an unforeseen event occurred when the ferry personnel evacuated the island leaving no land connection to the south side for people evacuating from the north end of the island. Mr. Janmohamed stated that these issues would definitely be addressed by the  SPEC as part of the agenda during their review of this hurricane evacuation.

    Island utilities reported almost no problems. Belize Electricity mentioned only a few leaning poles due to the wind but no real outages. Belize Water Services had minor interruptions in their water service mainly due to power failure and one "washout" exposing a pipe that needed repaired in the San Pedrito area. Although Belize Telecommunications Limited reported no problems, several customer complaints were heard about accessing Internet and electronic mail. Customers stated that during this type of emergency, telecommunications can be a matter of life and death. These were the same complaints issued about BTL's service during Hurricane Keith and many were disappointed that service had not improved since then.

    At 9:00 Tuesday morning the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) declared the Green Phase or All Clear for the entire country of Belize. By Wednesday morning normalcy was restored to the island. The liquor ban was lifted, establishments were open and ready for business, and water taxis were running again. All in all, Officer James Janmohamed described the performance of the San Pedro Emergency Committee during this tropical storm as "very well-like a well-oiled machine."

    On behalf of the community we extend our gratitude to the members of the SPEC for their hard work, courage and dedication during these emergencies. They are: Chairperson Area Representative Patty Arceo, Vice Chair Mayor Alberto Nuñez, Operations Officer James Janmohamed, Transportation Member Giovanni Guerra, Evacuation Officer Thomas Young, Tourist Representative Francisco Rejon, Supplies Member "Jimbo" Vasquez, Communications Member Jim Diehl, Belize Electricity Ltd. Officer Chris Nuñez, Water and Sewerage Authority Member Andy Palmer, Belize Telecommunications Ltd. Technicians-in-Charge Charles Usher and Aaron Hendricks, Police Representative Assistant Inspector of Police Linden Flowers, Shelter Member Lance Corporal Danuavon Franzue, BDF Liaison Captain Michael Joseph, Medical Officer Nurse Natalie Palen, and Fire Service Representative Andrew Nunez.
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