In the eye of the storm
With sustained winds of 150 miles per hour and gusts of 230 miles, the eye of Hurricane Hattie came roaring inland on Monday, October 30, 1961, two days and three hours earlier than originally forecasted.
It slowed its forward speed for eight long hours as it crossed the country, unleashing fearsome winds, heavy, salty rain and a 15-foot tidal wave of muddy and murky water. Mullins River village and its habitants were washed away, and 80% of the buildings in Belize City were either destroyed or severely damaged. Experts say that the destruction would have been total had the storm stayed over our port city an hour longer.
Our family of eight sought refuge at a 3-storey building at the corner of Queen and North Front streets known as Paslow Building. We arrived at Paslow’s hurricane shelter at 4:00 in the afternoon and met close to 200 people already encamped on its second and third floors. My two brothers, three sisters and I were at the wide-eyed ages of 2, 5, 7, 11, 12 and 13. I was the eleven-year-old. The winds picked up exponentially at one o’clock Tuesday morning, triggering a total blackout. That blackout also took out our British Honduras Broadcasting Service (BHBS) radio transmission. Surprising us totally, Hurricane Hattie made landfall at 11:00 Halloween Eve night, and not at 4 o’clock Tuesday morning, Halloween Day, as our penultimate BHBS forecast had predicted. Our family huddled together in almost total darkness as Hattie hissed and huffed and howled. Missiles pelted our shelter with increasing regularity and intensity. Our parents had to move us closer to nearby mahogany office-desks for maximum protection and to keep us calm amidst all the mayhem.
Then there was a huge explosion. Powerful hurricane force gusts had blown out a 10’ x 5’ wooden window, leaving behind a large gaping hole in the wall and exposing us to the elements and unidentifiable flying objects. We quickly moved to safer ground while our parents and other adults scrambled to plug the breach with desks, using their bodies to brace them against the wall until the wind weakened and died hours later. We were startled a second time when a skylight perched atop the Paslow building shattered, sending large pieces of roofing plummeting down an inside elevator-like shaft three floors below. Several persons were injured and rushed into the shelter’s hospital bay for medical attention.
At 10 o’clock Tuesday morning, we all ventured unto the North Front Street verandah to view the hurricane damage at daylight. A horrible sight met our eyes. The landmark metal Belize City Swing Bridge, the Queen Street fire station, Central Market, the Post Office below us and the library building next door looked like a hidden underwater city. Wednesday morning saw swimmers leaping into the flood waters to find food wherever they could and bring it back for us to share. By Thursday morning, the water on the streets of the city had fallen to a height of two and a half feet. That is when our mom and I went to check on the damage to our Barrack Road residence.
We waded through muddy, murky water and debris along the entire the length of Queen Street, passing a number of foreign medical teams tending the sick and injured. Finally, we arrived at our Barrack Road destination by “Majestic Alley”. Then our hearts sank. Our entire upstairs residence had collapsed and was partially submerged. Our talking pet-parrot had been crushed by two fallen support beams. And our dad’s “Golden Gloves” championship trophies he captured as a youth were all gone. To add injury to insult, I stepped on a wooden plank with a 4-inch nail. Geez! Immediately, my mom abandoned the search and rescue mission we had undertaken and headed back, pausing in front of Angelus Press for me to be administered a tetanus shot by a visiting Mexican medical team. It was there that we learnt of the tragic plane crash that killed five volunteer Mexican doctors on their way to Belize to help. The crash was attributed to bad weather.
Two days later, a broken and twisted “Swing Bridge” spanning the Belize River had been repaired and opened to traffic. Brodies Store on Albert Street announced that it would be distributing foodstuff. But when they opened their doors, vandalism ensued and authorities were forced to close the store prematurely. We returned empty-handed and with teargas in our eyes. On my way back to Paslow, I observed a large metal water tank lying on top the once beautiful red-brick Presbyterian Church near the Supreme Court on Regent Street. It was reduced to rubble. I also witnessed a humorous cremation exercise by the river at the end of Pickstock Street. A few bodies had been pulled from the river. When they were doused with an incendiary liquid and lit, the bodies began to move, scaring away some 20 spectators, who made a hasty retreat.
A total of two hundred sixty-three persons lost their lives in this hurricane. They included 94 from Belize City proper, 46 from Mullins River, Stann Creek District alone, one from Cayo and zero from Orange Walk, Corozal and Toledo. Forty-seven were unidentified.
by Hipolito I. Bautista for Amandala