Hurricane Does Unbelievable Things....

These were the first words that Don Severo Castillo said to me when I asked him to tell me his incredible "adventure" and how he and other San Pedrano fishermen survived the fury of Hurricane Hattie, which zeroed on into Belize on that fateful Halloween Night, October 31,1961.

The following is Don Severo's amazing story.

Our fishing boat, "La Florita" was docked at the mouth of the Belize City River, loaded up with "taciste" for the "nasas" (wood for making lobster traps), and we were sitting down in the early morning eating a snack and listening to the latest weather reports on the radio. We knew that there was a hurricane in the Caribbean, but at ten o'clock in the morning, the all clear was given by the radio and flag signal at the river, indicating that the hurricane was not a threat for Belize. The radio report said that Hurricane Hattie was heading towards the vicinity of Jamaica and Cuba, away from Belize.

Gabriel, "Tatin" Rosado, the owner of "La Florita" decided that we should head to the Turneffe Islands to start laying down the lobster traps. The three of us arrived at Turneffe sometime in the late afternoon and noticed that there were hundreds of lobsters around the mangroves surrounding Shell Caye. It was a great sight for the eyes of fishermen, but something on the back of my head told me that it seemed like a bad omen seeing the lobsters behave in this manner. We didn't realize at the time that the lobsters were trying to hide from the approaching storm. By this time, the wind had picked up and the waves were starting to get bigger. Our third companion on the boat, Florentino "Yach" Gonzalez was shouting, "Let the wind blow. It's great for lobster fishing!" Of course, he didn't know that Hurricane Hattie had made a 180 degree turn and "boomeranged" straight for Belize.

Early that evening, another boat crew who had anchored on the northern side of Shell Caye joined us. Ramon and.Leoli Varela told us the bad news. We switched on the radio to hear reports that Hurricane Hattie was predicted to strike between Corozal and Chetumal, Mexico in the. next 12 hours. That meant it was heading straight towards us and the small Caye offered very little protection against such a huge hurricane, Leoli and Ramon headed back to their boat later on the evening, and by this time, the wind was howling and the waves were starting to crash on top our boat. We knew we were in dire straits. Our minds were racing in all directions, thinking about our families in San Pedro, about the other fishermen in the vicinity, the approaching storm, and how to prepare against it. We didn't have time to do the latter.

Around 12 midnight, "La Lupita" capsized under the strength of huge waves, the high winds, and the heavy rains. The three of us were washed away by the waves into the middle of the Caye, which by this time seemed like a huge pile of mangroves and coconut trees strewn on top of another and water gushing in all directions. Fortunately, we managed to get a hold of one of our doreys (small canoes) and immediately turned it over and put it over our heads. It protected us from the pelting rain, which felt like small stones bitting you at full force. We spent the next, hour struggling against the waves, tree branches, cold, and underwater currents, but managed to somehow stay near the same spot all the time. The storm surge on top of the Caye had water reaching up to our chests and many times smacking us hard in our faces and stinging our eyes. Imagine yourself, if you can, in this situation: It is pitch black, you are in water up to your chest there are howling winds of up to 150 blowing outside, and you are clinging on to dear life to a wooden dorey, which is your only "protection" against this awesome force of nature. If you didn't know or believed in God before, I guarantee you will find Him during such horrible moments."

During the first hour of the hurricane, all we did was prayed and prayed. Many times I thought, this was it, I'm going to die,- but I continued praying to God to help us sur- vive the storm. And then it was calm ... dead calm ... e e r i e calm ... blessedly calm. We moved the dorey that was. Above our heads and saw a crystal clear, bright shining starry night. It was quite a moment. We knew that we had only about an hour to collect our senses before the second violent wave hit us. And this time, the force of the storm would be coming from the dreaded south, the most violent part of a hurricane. At this time, we didn't know whether Ramon and Leoli were still alive on the northern part of Shell Caye, if there was still a northern part.

Around 2:00 a.m., we noticed the sea level rising steadily against the tree branches, signaling the approaching end- of the calm "eye" of the storm, and the three of us looked at each other and sadly wondered whether we would be able to survive the second round. And then it hit, and the walls of water kept crashing on top of us and around us, with never ending fierceness. The nightmare seemed to go on forever. I still do not know how we kept our strength during the night, but afterwards, we realized our prayers gave us courage and comfort to endure the storm.

Finally, it was over around 11:00 a.m. the next day. Shell Caye was something else. The trees looked as if a firestorm had gone over them burning their leaves and branches. This was a result of the relentless fierce winds and rains hitting them. We couldn't find our boat; neither did Leoli and Ramon, who had survived the hurricane also. We were stranded on the Caye, overrun by the sea, without any food or water to drink. Our chances of surviving this other dilemma seemed very small.

We endured another day and night at Shell Caye, shivering against the cold, thirsty and hungry. The next day, we decided to get out of the Caye with our dorey, but it as difficult because the seas were ill rough and the small dorey kept capsizing. Luckily for us, another fishing vessel, "The Argonaut" had surived the hurricane in another part of Turneffe, and its crew members immediately set out looking for survivors. We were rescued by the Argonaut's crew who had seen us from very far away doing battle against the waves with our small dorey. Boy! Were we glad to see the Argonaut and Secun Gonzalez, Henry Henkis, Jose Gonzalez, Andrew Bradley and Eduardo Brown Sr. (Andrew and Eduardo had themselves survived a terrible ordeal during Hurricane Janet in November 1955, which killed Eduardo Brown's entire family and left him as an orphan at the tender age of nine).

After we were given water and fed by the Argonaut's crew, the 17 year-old Captain, Eduardo Brown, decided to head straight to Belize City to get more supplies. On the way, Eduardo and the crew told us how they had survived Hattie by securing their boat in a small mangrove harbor and tying up the Argonaut to the highest point of the tallest branches to make amends for the storm surge. Theirs is another amazing story in itself.

As soon as we arrived at Belize City, we stocked up on water, food and medicines and then headed straight for San Pedro, fearful of what we might see at our beloved village. It was much "better" than what we expected; there had been a lot of homes destroyed, but nobody had died and the villagers were already up and rebuilding. Three days after the hurricane, supplies were running low on San Pedro, but lucky for us, the British Army and an American supply ship provided us with more. When I look back at that harsh and distressful episode of my life, I always think that I was given a second chance to live and look at life at a different way- to live fully in both its good and bad moments."

Don Severo eventually returned to Shell Caye with his fellow fishermen where they found out that a total of 49 souls had been lost at Turneffe during hurricane Hattie, mostly Garifuna fishermen who were camping with their families at the islands. Other fishermen had tugged their boat "La Florita" to a nearby Caye. During the time their boat was underwater, it had served as a lobster trap, and when they started bailing it out, they found hundreds of lobsters inside. After the hurricane, the fishermen had an awesome lobster catch, but most of the money they made went out to pay bills incurred as a result of the hurricane.

Hurricane Hattie packed winds of more than 150 m.p.h., very similar to the strength that Hurricane Mitch had, and was considered a Category 5 hurricane, the worst of its kind. Belize City was hit hard and devastated by Hattie- approximately 500 souls perished during the hurricane and hundreds of homes were lost. in Caye Caulker, 14 people lost their lives and almost all the houses were destroyed. San Pedro did not suffer the loss of any lives, but most of the village houses were badly damaged. Back in thos days, folks relied solely on radios for information and weather reports, which limited them somewhat on their preparedness against powerful storms. May all the souls who perished during these tragic storms rest in peace.

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