Caye Caulker’s recovery after Hurricane Hattie in 1961

The following article is an excerpt from a book compiled by John D. Friesen entitled “Hurricane Hattie, Story of the hurricane that ripped through the British Honduras – October 31, 1961″. It’s a very interesting read for all and I invite everyone to access this historical information especially for our beloved isla carinosa, Caye Caulker:

Caye Caulker’s Recovery after Hattie


Caye Caulker was split into two following Hurricane Hattie in 1961 (Photo provided by Mr. Ray Auxillou)

Caye Caulker, 20 miles north-east of Belize, near the Barrier Reef, was swept by 15 foot waves. After the Hurricane, only two good houses were left out of over 100. Almost 400 people were homeless and nearly completely wiped out with 14 known dead.

There were a few more houses numbering about 8 that were also used as refugee centers during the storm but at best were continually swept by water and badly damaged.

People were in a complete daze for the next two days as their grief and sorrow made them seemingly incapable of dealing with the situation. Meanwhile, on the second day in Belize, a fisherman from the Caye arrived in his small boat where he immediately spread the word among relatives of the terrible, bad, bad disaster there. Upon questioning the man, Mr. Ray Auxillou, an Englishman, residing in Belize, thought it was necessary to make a trip out to the Caye and bring back an accurate damage report. He set out, contacting relatives of the people on the Caye and soon a small party with a 19 ft. runabout and salt water drowned motor was found. A mechanic from Gordo’s worked on the motor feverishly while gasoline was hunted.

During the hurry and bustle of preparation, a visit to the controlling authority was paid by Auxillou to notify them of the intention to inspect the needs of the people at the Caye and the extent of the damage. Controlling authority turned out to be the Governor who seemed pleased and offered any help.

Consequently, a small list of food was obtained from the Marketing Board to be taken out for emergency use. The food turned out to be too much for the small boat and two other island sloops were comandeered at the wharf and the food loaded aboard. The speedboat with Ray Auxillou, Luis Alamina and Ilna Alamina went ahead to organize the reception and distribution of food.

Upon arrival the group were met by Constable Bernard Higinio, who was informed by Mr. Auxillou that a state of emergency was declared on the Caye, and that he would work under his authority for the time being on direct verbal orders from the Police Commissioner Bruce Taylor in Belize. A meeting of the Village Council was held at the J.P.’s house (best house remaining).

The distribution and plans for rehabilitation were discussed and after a little time, it was decided to leave things in the hands of the Village Council. However, by the next morning, it was apparent that the shock of disaster and great loss of everyone made things difficult. The Council were not reliable to adequately control or agree on what to do, people were looting and there was no spirit of cooperation. The Constable and Mr. Auxillou therefore called a public meeting that morning. The terrible situation in which the hurricane had left the whole country was described and the situation at the Caye was reviewed. Mr. Auxillou, speaking as the Governor’s representative, stated he found it necessary to declare “Martial Law” on the Caye, and in a long speech told the people that they could expect hardly any help from outside, but the best could be attempted, with no promises.

He explained how everyone should work together in cooperation with the Village Council, who would control all operations answerable to him.

Registration groups were formed immediately to list all people on the Caye, by age, name and family. A list of the destitute was made; a list of immediate requirements was also made.

The paper work took most of the day. Another meeting was held that night and “volunteer” conscription was organized with the motto “no work, no food”.

Gangs were assigned to the emergency projects in order of priority. There were the gathering and repairing of all water vats, erection of temporary shelters and looking after aid. Five serious hospital cases were sent into Belize City by boat early the next day.

Upon returning to Belize, a report was given to the Governor and a list of emergency requirements requested. These were authorized immediately and Mr. Auxillou’s authority for representing the Governor’s Emergency Hurricane Headquarters was confirmed verbally.

A tough time, even with the Governor’s written authority was experienced in getting materials, as no respect was shown to the Police Guard assigned. It was eventually found necessary to use two armed soldiers; after this was done, things worked out smoothly.

In two days’ time, the Caye had several houses standing and 19 temporary shelters. Now four weeks later, there are almost 50 complete houses, and work has stopped only because materials are lacking. At least 50 houses were swept completely away to sea.

After ten days, Mr. Auxillou passed the authority over the the Constable through the Governor, still leaving the Village Council in actual charge of operations, as the emergency crisis was deemed over, and all operations were now working fairly smoothly. The situation broke down slightly a few days later for a short time, but went back to normal again with the Village Council, now working in complete charge.


Hurricane Hattie

Hurricane Hattie was the deadliest tropical cyclone of the 1961 Atlantic hurricane season, as well as the strongest, reaching a peak intensity equivalent to Category 5 hurricane intensity. The ninth tropical storm and seventh hurricane and major hurricane, Hattie originated from an area of low pressure that developed and intensified into a tropical storm near San Andres Island on October 27. Moving towards the north and north-northeast, the storm quickly gained hurricane status and major hurricane status the following day. Hattie turned towards the west to the east of Jamaica, and strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph (260 km/h) before weakening to Category 4 status at landfall south of Belize City. Continuing southwest, the storm rapidly weakened over the mountainous terrain of Central America, dissipating on November 1.

Hattie first affected regions in the southwestern Caribbean, producing hurricane force winds and causing one death on San Andres Island. It was initially forecast to continue north and strike Cuba, which prompted evacuations. Little effects were reported as Hattie turned to the west, although rainfall reached 11.5 in (290 mm) on Grand Cayman. The worst damage was in the country of Belize, which was known as British Honduras when Hattie struck. The former capital, Belize City, was flooded by a powerful storm surge and high waves and affected by strong winds. The territory governor estimated 70% of the buildings in the city were damaged, which left over 10,000 people homeless. The damage was severe enough that it prompted the government to relocate inland to a new city, Belmopan. In the territory, Hattie left about $60 million in damage and caused 307 deaths. The government estimated that Hattie was more damaging than a hurricane in 1931 that killed 2,000 people; the lower toll for Hattie was due to advanced warning. Elsewhere in Central America, the hurricane killed 11 people in Guatemala and one in Honduras.

Meteorological history


Storm path

For several days toward the end of October 1961, a low pressure area persisted in the western Caribbean Sea, north of the Panama Canal Zone. On October 25, an upper-level anticyclone moved near and over the low, and the next day, a trough over the western Gulf of Mexico provided favorable outflow for the disturbance. At 0000 UTC on October 27, a ship in the vicinity of the disturbance reported southerly winds of 46 mph (74 km/h). Later that day, the airport on San Andres Island reported easterly winds of 60 mph (95 km/h). The two observations confirmed the presence of a closed atmospheric circulation, located about 70 miles (110 km) southeast of San Andres, or 155 mi (250 km) east of the Nicaragua coast; as a result, the Miami, Florida Weather Bureau office began issuing advisories on Tropical Storm Hattie.

After being classified, Hattie moved steadily northward, passing very near or over San Andres Island. There, a station recorded a pressure of 991 mbar (29.3 inHg) and sustained winds of 80 mph (130 km/h), which indicated that Hattie reached hurricane status. Late on October 28, a Hurricane Hunters flight encountered a much stronger hurricane, with winds of 125 mph (200 km/h) in a small area near the center. At the time, gale force winds extended outward 140 miles (225 km) to the northeast, and 70 miles (115 km) to the southwest. By early on October 29, a trough extended from Nicaragua through Florida; based on the trough and climatology for similar hurricanes, Hattie was expected to continue northward. By later that day, the hurricane was predicted to be an imminent threat to the Cayman Islands and western Cuba. Around that time, a strengthening ridge to its north turned Hattie toward the northwest, which spared the Greater Antilles, but increased the threat to Central America.

With the strengthening of the ridge to its north, Hurricane Hattie began intensifying again, after retaining the same strength for about 24 hours. Initially, forecasters at the Miami Weather Bureau predicted the storm to turn northward again. Late on October 29, the center of the hurricane passed about 90 miles (145 km) southwest of Grand Cayman; at the same time, the interaction between Hattie and a ridge to its north produced squally winds of around 30 mph (50 km/h) across Florida. Early on October 30, the Hurricane Hunters confirmed the increase in intensity, reporting winds of 140 mph (225 km/h). The minimum central pressure continued to drop throughout the day, reaching 924 mbar (27.3 inHg) by 1300 UTC; a lower pressure of 920 mbar (27 inHg) was computed at 1700 UTC that day, based on a flight-level reading. Its motion curved toward the west-southwest, causing the hurricane to pass between the Cayman Islands and the Swan Islands. By late on October 30, it is estimated that Hattie attained peak winds of 160 mph (260 km/h) about 190 mi (310 km) east of the border of Mexico and British Honduras. This made Hattie the equivalence of a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, making it the latest hurricane on record to reach the status until a reanalysis of the 1932 season revealed that Hurricane Fourteen reached this status on November 5, six days after Hattie. Additionally, Hattie was the strongest measured October hurricane in the northwest Caribbean until Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Hurricane Hattie maintained much of its intensity as it continued toward the coast, and on October 31 made landfall a short distance south of Belize City after moving through several islands offshore. Its eyewall measured about 25 miles (40 km), and sustained winds were unofficially estimated at over 150 mph (240 km/h), potentially as strong as 200 mph (325 km/h). In a post-season analysis, it was determined that Hattie weakened to winds of 140 mph (225 km/h) before moving ashore. The hurricane weakened rapidly over land, dissipating on November 1 as it moved into the mountains of Guatemala. As Hattie was dissipating, Tropical Storm Simone was developing off the Pacific coast of Guatemala. There was speculation that Hattie contributed to the development of Simone, and later Tropical Storm Inga after the systems merged.

Preparations

When the Miami Weather Bureau first began issuing advisories on Hattie, the agency noted the potential for heavy rainfall in the southwestern Caribbean, which could have caused flash flooding. The advisories recommended for small ships to remain at harbor, across the region. Initially, the hurricane was predicted to move near or through the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and Cuba. As a result, Cuban officials warned residents in low-lying areas to evacuate.

Hurricane Hattie first posed a threat to the Yucatán Peninsula and British Honduras on October 30, when it first turned toward the area. Officials at the Miami Weather Bureau warned of the threat for high tides, strong winds, and torrential rainfall. The warnings were transmitted to people in the affected area, allowing for extensive evacuations. Most of the people in the capital, Belize City, were evacuated or moved to shelters, although some shelters were unsafe and were destroyed in the hurricane. A hospital in the city was evacuated, and a school operated as a shelter. Over 75% of the population of Stann Creek fled to safer locations.

After Hattie made landfall, officials in Mexico order the closure of ports along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Impact

Southwestern Caribbean, Greater Antilles, and Florida

Despite predictions for heavy rainfall in the southwestern Caribbean, the hurricane's movement was more northerly than expected, resulting in less precipitation along the Central American coast than anticipated. While forming and intensifying, Hurricane Hattie passed near or over San Andrés island, which is located off the east coast of Nicaragua. The hurricane was the fourth on record to strike the island, and of the four was the only to approach from the south. While approaching the island, the airport was closed due to tropical storm force winds. Maximum sustained winds reached 80 mph (130 km/h), with gusts to 104 mph (167 km/h). The hurricane resulted in one death, fifteen injuries, and $300,000 in damage (1961 USD).

In the northwestern Caribbean, Hattie passed closest to Grand Cayman, where heavy rainfall were reported. About 11.5 inches (292 mm) were reported on the island, including 7.8 inches (198 mm) in six hours. Winds on Grand Cayman were below hurricane force, and minor damage occurred due to the heavy rainfall.

The interaction of a ridge of high pressure and the hurricane produced sustained winds of 20 mph (35 km/h) across most of Florida, with a gust of 72 mph (116 km/h) reported at Hillsboro Inlet Light; the winds produced some beach erosion in the state. Due to the high winds, the U.S. Weather Bureau issued a small craft warning for the west and east Florida coastlines, as well as northward to Brunswick, Georgia.

Northwestern Caribbean

Hurricane Hattie moved ashore in British Honduras with powerful winds and a storm tide of up to 14 feet (4.3 m) near Belize City, a city of 31,000 people located at sea-level; the city's only defenses against the storm tide were a small seawall and a strip of swamp lands. The capital experienced a 10 ft (3 m) storm tide along its waterfront that reached the third story of some buildings, in combination with high waves. When Hattie affected the area, most buildings in Belize City were wooden, and many of the destroyed homes were made of wood. Offshore, the hurricane heavily damaged 80% of the Belize Barrier Reef, although the reef recovered after the storm.

High winds caused a power outage, downed trees across the region, and destroyed the roofs of many buildings. Governor Colin Thornley estimated that over 70% of the buildings in the territory were damaged, and over 10,000 people were left homeless. The hurricane destroyed the wall at an insane asylum, which allowed the residents to escape. High waves damaged a prison, prompting officials to institute a "daily parole" program for the inmates. Hattie also flooded the Government House, washing away all records. All of Belize City was coated in a layer of mud and debris, and majority of the city was destroyed or severely damaged, as was nearby Stann Creek. The hurricane left significant crop damage across the region, including $2 million in citrus fruits and similar losses to timber, cocoa, and bananas. About 70% of the territory's mahogany trees were downed, as were most citrus and grapefruit trees. The hurricane damaged several factories and oil rigs in the region. Damage throughout the territory totaled $60 million (1961 USD), and a total of 307 deaths were reported; more than 100 of the fatalities were in Belize City, including 36 who evacuated to a destroyed British administration building. The government of British Honduras considered Hurricane Hattie more damaging than a hurricane in 1931 that killed 2,000 people; the lower death toll of Hattie was due to advanced warning.

Hurricane Hattie also impacted other countries in Central America with flash floods, causing 11 deaths in Guatemala and one fatality in Honduras. Swan Island reported wind gusts slightly below hurricane force, with minor damage and one injury reported.

Aftermath


A British Honduras postage stamp overprinted in 1962 to mark the hurricane.

After Hattie struck, officials in Belize City declared martial law. A manager of United Press International described Belize City as "nothing but a huge pile of matchsticks", and the roads were either flooded for days or covered with mud. Doctors provided typhoid vaccinations to 12,000 residents in two days to prevent the spread of disease. Additionally, officials ordered for mass cremations, due to the high death toll and to stop disease spreading. The city's three newspapers were unable to operate due to lack of power after the storm. At the city's police station, workers provided fresh water and rice to storm victims. In the days after the storm, roads were flooded or otherwise impassable due to debris. Many residents throughout British Honduras donated supplies to the storm victims, such that an airlines manager described it as "taxing... manpower and facilities." One airline allowed donations to be flown to Belize City at no cost. By November 5, Belize City's post office reopened on a limited basis, but all business had remained closed. About 4,000 homeless residents from Stann's Creek were moved by boat to the northern portion of the territory. Many homeless people from the Belize City area set up a tent city about 16 mi (26 km) inland. One such refugee camp outside Belize was settled and became known as Hattieville.

About 200 British soldiers arrived from Jamaica to quell looting and maintain order. At least 20 people were arrested in the day after Hattie struck. The British government sent flights of aid to the territory containing food, clothing, and medical supplies. The House of Commons quickly passed a bill to provide £10,000 in aid. The Save the Children fund sent £1,000 to British Honduras. The Mexican government sent three flights of food and medicine to the territory. Two American destroyers arrived in the country by November 2, reporting the need for assistance. The USS Antietam remained at port for weeks after the storm with six medical officers and six Marine helicopters. Four other ships had sailed to the territory to provide assistance, along with 458,000 pounds of food. The United States government allocated about $300,000 in assistance through the International Development Association. The Canadian government provided $75,000 worth of aid, including food, blankets, and medical supplies.

By a year after Hattie struck British Honduras, private and public workers repaired and rebuilt buildings affected by the storm. New hotels were built, and stores were reopened. Prime Minister George Cadle Price successfully appealed for assistance from the British government, which ultimately provided £20 million in loans. In the days after the storm, the government announced plans to relocate the capital of British Honduras further inland. In 1970, the government built Belmopan as the new capital, located on higher ground. On the 44th anniversary of the hurricane in 2005, the government of Belize unveiled a monument in Belize City to recognize the victims of the hurricane.

The name Hattie was retired and will never be used by an Atlantic hurricane again.