Hurricane Mitch threatens Belize

Central Park in downtown San Pedro
Photo by Kay Scott

Two weeks ago routine life on San Pedro, Ambergris Caye and Belize came to a sudden halt when Hurricane Mitch became a threat to the country on Sunday, October 25th, 1998.

Hurricane Mitch developed from a tropical depression outside the coast of Panama. From there it took on a northerly track, heading straight to the islands of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. On Sunday, October 25th, Hurricane Mitch took a turn for the worst when it started moving to the northwest posing a serious threat to Belize. The government of Belize moved very quickly to alert every town and village and started discussing emergency preparations.

The San Pedro Town Board held an open meeting on Sunday, October 25th at 4:00 p.m. to inform the public of the alert. After the meeting the San Pedro Hurricane Committee met to discuss and plan the necessary hurricane procedures that the island had to take. Members of the committee were all assigned different duties and immediately started working on evacuation procedures, establishing medical and communications centers, preparing hurricane shelters and so forth. The San Pedro Town Hall stayed open all night with members of the committee and volunteers working on the hurricane procedures.

Looking at the north end of Barrier Reef drive
Photo by Kay Scott

By early Monday morning, thousands of islanders had rushed to the airstrip and the piers to leave the island; Hurricane Mitch was moving towards Belize with winds over 150 mph. The government never issued a mandatory evacuation of the islands and coast line, but San Pedro and Caye Caulker were preparing for the worst. A voluntary evacuation was issued in San Pedro, but the Hurricane Committee advised the islanders to leave at the first opportunity they could get. Maya Island Air and Tropic Air did an extraordinary job of evacuating as many people as possible. They had non-stop flights to Belize City evacuating approximately 1000 people per airline on Monday alone. Once in the city, people went to family members, to bus terminals and taxies and traveled inland to many towns and villages. Water taxis made trips to Belize City and many people left with privately owned skiffs which offered rides to anyone who was waiting at the piers. Those who did not leave on Monday were busy boarding up the windows of their houses and businesses. The demand for plywood was very high and due to the rush there was a shortage by Tuesday. Water had to be rationed to keep an emergency supply on hand. Meanwhile, the Hurricane Committee kept on working to provide all the services possible to the island.

By late Monday afternoon, those who were still on the island could hear the rage of the Caribbean Sea, just outside the barrier reef. Huge waves rose much higher than 20 feet as they battered the reef that was fighting to protect the island. Residents kept a close eye on Mitch as it reached its highest potential of 180 mph; a super, category 5 hurricane labeled as catastrophic. By the end of the day, approximately 6,000 people had evacuated the island. Those who remained made plans to leave as early as possible the following day.

Crowds gathered as early as 4:00 a.m. at the airstrip on Tuesday so that they could be a few of the lucky ones to be able to leave the island. The airlines' pilots voluntarily stayed behind to evacuate as many people as they could and flew up to the point where weather conditions permitted. Around 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. there were no more flights and people had to rush for the water taxis and other skiffs that were helping evacuate people. By the end of the day, people started moving into the designated shelters and to houses which they thought were strong enough to withstand the hurricane.

Hurricane Mitch baffled hurricane experts with its unpredictable movement. They could not predict or estimate an area which it would strike. The only thing everybody could do was wait. By Wednesday, October 28th Mitch was situated directly over the islands of Guanaja and Roatan off the coast of Honduras. It was drifting westward at five miles per hour and at times was almost stationary. Hurricane Mitch then proceeded to move to the southeast and moved over land in Honduras where it lost its strength and was classified as a category one hurricane by Friday. A sigh of relief fell upon the entire country, yet many felt concerned for the people of Honduras.

Photo by Kay Scott
People started to move to Belize City and the coast line by Friday. Probably the most anxious people to get home were the residents of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. The two islands were predicted to have received the most damage. People started coming to San Pedro on Saturday and to their relief and extreme delight, the island was hardly damaged. The biggest damage was endured by the beach and the piers. Only a couple of piers remained standing and parts of the shore were badly eroded. Only a handful of beachside homes and hotels sustained structural damage, which was not serious.

Nevertheless, San Pedro was spared and continues to be "La Isla Bonita." The island is up and running and the entire community is working as one to help restore what was damaged and lost. Hotels are in full gear, dive shops and tourist guides are already providing trips to the beautiful coral reef and the island is still expecting a prosperous tourist season.

Our hearts, prayers and helping hands extend to the islands and communities of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador who suffered the wrath of Hurricane Mitch. Many have lost their homes and even loved ones. As sister countries, Belize is here to help in any way possible.

Hurricane Mitch threatens Belize

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