All Men at the Door! Belize's Post Hattie Generation

Written by Bilal Morris:

(In memory of the Belizeans whose lives were lost in the 1961 Hurricane Hattie & in the advent of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic)

“All men at the door”, yelled the nuns from the hurricane shelter at St. Catherine's Academy where my parents and their family had sheltered from the storm as the 1961 Hurricane called “Hattie” pounded the coastal regions of Belize mercilessly thirty years after the devastation and destruction that the 1931 hurricane had brought upon the country and people of Belize City.

My father and the rest of the men who had brought their families to safety at the historic all girl catholic college rushed to the door immediately and pushed back against the wind with their strong bodies creating an instant buffer. The massive gale force winds puffed, blew, and whistled angrily back at them through the edges between the perimeter of the door as the women and children inside trembled with fear thinking that the door would have collapsed. There was also a feeling that the men would be no match for the hundred plus miles an hour of the storm’s might. But the door held under the men’s weight and mercy persevered the moment that had come so suddenly upon the scared occupants of the room who had produced a generation that had absolutely any idea about what the devastating hurricane before Hattie was like.

Within the dark night of the raging disaster, the sea had come upon the land and filled every space accompanied by the stinking rain. My eldest brother who was visiting his girlfriend that day when the storm hit had my parents worried since he was not with the rest of the family at the hurricane shelter. There was no idea what may have become of him since all communication was cut and Belize remained in a state of emergency and isolation. As the nuns sang hymns in a desperate call for some kind of mercy in their fear that the aging catholic building would crumble under the relentless bombardment of Hattie, the packed room of those people who sought refuge joined in with them and sang their hearts out.

Fear inflicts an uncertainty upon the mind of its victims. It’s an element of surprise that punishes without compassion. And the people of Belize whom had built back their proud city from the rubble of the past watched it again being drowned and buried alive to an almost unrecognizable abyss. The lost of life was catastrophic and may have even been as worse as the most dreaded storm before that in Belize’s history. Fortunately this time, Hattie had a name and not a number and appeared that there was some kind of warning that it was coming being that the below sea level British colony had progressively advanced in age and time.

Hattie had much of its dead that it killed being buried on the spot while some were burned for the fear of spreading diseases since the bodies had decomposed so badly after the storm had subsided. Three decades ago a hurricane had inflicted almost annihilation on the people of the former British Honduras because there have been no accurate account to date of the dead, missing, and disappeared. But Hattie was different in that it tested trusted structures improved through advance building over the years but had aged over time. It destroyed churches, schools, infrastructure, agriculture and colonial property that were the only means of refuge from it for the thriving Central American nation struggling out of colonialism.

Becoming visible to the outside world of developing nations, more aid and assistance poured in for the first time in the history of Belize while creating a wave of Belizean migrants to the United States that had come about since the American consulate in Belize for the reason of charitable causes of diplomacy began to assist a devastated country to rebuild. The U.S. government gave visas to the British Honduran subjects to go to the U.S. to work and send back remittances to help their love ones left behind and to rebuild their lives.

But Hattie also created a brain drain on the former British colony that resulted in a kind of chain migration out of Belize over successive years to present. Its effects are still felt up to today as some of Belize’s best minds had continued to leave in search of greener pastures. Could it may have been that some of these Belizeans who left and had never return was because of the hopelessness that Hattie had brought? The growing Belizean population abroad as one of the largest Caribbean diaspora in the U.S. had begun to bare witness and to testify.

But those that witnessed the 1931 Hurricane fared even worse but appeared to have withered the storm alone since there was no kind hand of gesture that was stretched out to them from the rising superpower to north. They build back a country and lives feeling the pain of abandonment and dislocation from the rest of the world that saw them as a bridge too far. But for the post-Hattie generation of Belizean folk, Belize was beginning to come into its own, and now its new global connection ushered in some badly needed support.

When the eldest member of my family migrated to the U.S. two years later after Hattie, the youngest of our family was not even born yet, and my mother in heart wrenching terror, held me tight in her arms as a baby at that convent by the Belizean sea for fear of losing me being only one month and four weeks old. As a post-Hattie generation of babies that were born during that dreaded time, she would always reminded me that my coming into this world on a Sunday in early September and surviving the horrors of Hattie; that fate would have made me survived some of the worst. As the storm raged, my small sleeping body rested well with her unaware of the danger outside.

Then as the red flag warnings came down and there was some kind of clear from danger of Hattie that pelted Belize with pouring inches of rain, rising flood waters, and cold and cutting winds, the people of Belize began to come outside to look for their dead, their survivors, and to measure the damage inflicted upon their graceful city. It was there that my lost and found brother was spotted by my sisters swimming past St. Mary’s Anglican School towards St. Catherine's Academy to reunite with the rest of his family that had began to fear that he may have been washed away by the flood waters that covered Belize City. The force of the waters destroyed the main bridge that connected the north and south side of Belize City and drowned many in its path. My brother arrived and survived the waters, my mother said, carrying a large can of candy, all soaking wet, and boasting a survival smile.

Then years after he had returned to Belize from the U.S. to visit after his migration, he told me how he survived Hattie and that what had helped him was that he was a good swimmer that could fend for himself as an 18 year-old young man. Staring up into his brotherly face as a boy that was too young to remember him when he left, the thought of seeing him as a stranger on his return really struck me to the realities of Hattie in that it almost deprived me to have become. My brother had returned to see his place of birth from the cold winters of Chicago, Illinois in the U.S., and hugged the survival of his family that he had left behind after Hattie. He embraced me as his little brother who had just been born when the hurricane struck, as well as connecting with my younger brother who was also seeing him for the first time in person and did not know him at all.

Hattie had made many Belizeans come into some kind of survivors of the fittest. And it had fostered in those Belizeans like myself the strength and pride of family and lineage that was born in the advent of its aftermath as Belize's post-Hattie generation.

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The back of the Supreme Court, there are no stairs and someone is sitting on the sea wall. Scotkirk church would be to the right in photo. Brodies would be on the left.
Photo credit: Alan Baker

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Turton house on North Front Street . This is the building where Prosser is and the photo is taken from Hyde’s Lane. just about where the Holy Redeemer Parish hall lower flat was, the entire upper sections were blown away. That watery section would be the children’s playground across from Turton’s office. The photographer was standing on West Canal Street with the canal on his right. The Belize River is in the front with the Prosser Building standing proudly. Beyond the Prosser Building is the green and white wooden house that is near the present parking lot. Closer to the right of the photographer is a corner of the Georgie August meat shop . Across the river to the right is part of the Holy Redeemer School building.
Photo credit: Alan Baker

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Ernest E. Cain - Cyclone Hattie

A book on hurricane Hattie by Ernest E. Cain published by Stockwell and co in Devon in UK.

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Hurricane Hattie 1961

by Mr. Angel Teck, Taken from the Lynam Story

The regular night studies for the night of October 31 were proceeding as usual. The diesel generator had been on for at least two hours and still going on and Farther Kramer had not turned the plant off because he was in town. The ten o’clock bell rang indicating that all should find their bed for the night. It started raining heavily and by eleven o’clock the light plant was still on while an electrical thunderstorm ensued. It was not strange in Lynam for heavy rains to pour through the night. Shortly after eleven O’clock, Father Kramer drove the big truck up the hill and braved the pouring rain to come up to the dormitory. No one was yet asleep because the lights were still on and all were surprised to see the padre soaking wet in the dormitory. He called out: Boys! Everybody get up and take your bedding with you… we are going tom Holy angels to weather the storm…a hurricane is coming and coming fast; the truck is waiting for you downstairs. Hurry! Come On!

Everyone scramble to grab bed clothing and nothing else…no suitcase, valise or anything of the sort. All rushed to the truck that was parked with the lights and engine on. We clambered on the sides of the truck and got into the box. The padre turned off the generator and came over under the rain, got into the driver’s seat and drove down the hill and on to Holy Angels Primary school buildings in Pomona. The rains never stopped and neither did we. We got to Pomona and on to the school buildings. We were all soaking wet and the beddings that we had carried were all wet as well. Under heavy thunder and lighting and rain! It was now becoming breezy about 11:30p.m. All doors and windows were closed and bolted and we accommodated ourselves as best we could after squeezing all the water from our clothes. We arranged desks and benches so we could use them as bed and some of us were able to fall asleep despite the crisis. The breeze turned into wind and the n very strong wind. As it got stronger and stronger we could hear the upper structure of the roof creaking due to the tremendous force of the winds against the roof. As time passed the hurricane winds got so strong that it made terrible howling of the hurricane wind as it forced itself over and around the building, like thousands of demons trying to break down the building or blow the roof off the building. The horrific sound prevented everybody from sleep. We sat huddled together wondering if the roof would bear the force of the assault. It must have been at least 5 hours maybe six hours of winds and rain but it felt like several eternities. That night nobody felt like urinating as we usually did at our hill at night; it was an unforgettable night filled with intense anxiety!

At six O’clock in the morning; everything went dead silent! The worse was been over; Hurricane Hattie had raped and ravage Stann Creek and left the valley in a lamentable state! We opened the doors and came out like glad chickens out of a cage; and behold!!! Everything around was a wreck! Many house roofs had been blown away, coconut trees were uprooted, orange trees were totally leafless and some were even uprooted and blown down. Nowhere, as far as the eye could see, was there a leaf on a tree. The whole world around looked as if a great army of grasshoppers and wee wee ants had devoured every leaf on sight. The trees were all bare branches pointing upwards like imploring Jews to Jehovah! The whole aspect of the environment was awe-inspiring. None of us had ever seen such a calamity. It was incredible and at the same time, a fearsome experience. Death had been riding the fearsome winds last night and had left its evidence scattered all over the place like corps in a battle field. In the neighboring fence there were at least 100 chickens dead in the crashed by a fallen coconut tree. As we moved around the school building surveying the great destruction we noticed that there were not many people moving around yet…we seemed to be the first. I understand that people were cowering inside their houses thinking that the hurricane would blow again, but fortunately it didn’t. All Was over. At about 8 in the morning people started appearing on the land, like ants coming out of their underground tunnels. About that time, we say the owner of the dead chickens, appear and said that if we wanted chickens we could take as many as we wanted to make our breakfast. We accepted the offer since the lady offered to lend us pots and pans to do so. It was the responsibility of the Lynam kitchen crew to prepare the meals…the guys were experts. We all quickly gathered dead wood, found three stones, made fire, boiled water, plucked the chickens and dressed them. The cooks took it from there and by 10:00 o’clock we were eating stewed chicken. It was here that the Lynam boys became known as real-life survivor brigade; known and admired by the people outside of campus. Father Kramer had gone back to town the night before and could not return until in the morning but Patrick Scott had been with us as prefect throughout the time…all was well. After breakfast we cleaned up the place, washed the dishes and pots and delivered it to the Good Samaritan who had fed us her chickens. Padre came late the morning and with machetes and axes because he said the Lyman road was littered with fallen trees and we had to clear the road to go back home. That didn’t scare us at all; in fact, I was surprised to see how everyone took it as an adventurous challenge rather than an inconvenience.

The news of Lynam boys’ dynamism had spread to Stann Creek Town and when the flood waters from the hurricane went out of the yards in town the authorities asked Fr. Kramer to lend a hand in clearing the disaster in town…clearing the debris and moving the fallen walls and mangled zinc roofs that the hurricane had destroyed. The padre sent a mission of thirty boys to assist the authorities in clearing the Town. Again here the Lynam boys left a most impressive record of work and discipline. Some would help empty the big groceries of all supplies that would be used by the authorities to feed the hurricane victims…which were indeed all residents. A group would be in charge of collecting the loose debris and load it into trucks, and yet another group would he assigned to work in yards with fallen houses; in search of dead people.

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The remains of the market area after Hurricane Hattie; a view from the swing-bridge. The building on the left was totally de-roofed and both were badly damaged by winds of more than 200 m.p.h. 3 days after the storm people were walking in stenched mud 6 to 12 inches deep. Folks will never forget what that mud smelled like!

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If you were standing on Albert and Regents streets during Hurricane Hattie in 1961 this would have been your perspective as far as water height. THe mud took forever to clean up! The BDF hosed down downtown Belize City with fire engine pumps.

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Below: Water level for Hurricane Hattie, Bridgefoot of the Swing Bridge. By Old Belize Market, the old market would be on the right of the pole. The bridge had been twisted/offset from the regular alignment. The water actually went up higher than that shown in the photo during the storm. It covered the then Pound Yard Bridge . Which back in the day was high.

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That's just the approach.
When the tidal wave came in it was about 15 feet.
That's a fact, because my home was high and in minutes we were standing ankle deep in the living room.
We had to sleep in our wardrobes.
After the water reversed, it left about 4 feet of fine muddy stink grayish mud.
That was Albert Street
Boats were on the streets and people's wooden vats.
I remember it so vividly.

The city looked so horrible
Everything misplaced homes in shambles,,Pets lying dead,Lamp poles and wires down, Many homes had their own wooden vats. These floated away or ended up in someone else,s yard,
My most horrible memory was to not recognizing your own neighborhood.
Totally altered or destroyed.
Don't you remember it was a ship that destroyed Scott Kirk?
The ship came in and was found on the church by the market!
Each area had a different experience.
I always laugh about this.
When the army trucks came around loaded with sacks of rice.
They made holes in the sacks and drove slowly down the streets and people running behind the truck with any containers they can fill
Remembered the kindness and politeness of these soldiers,
We were hungry but they have us respect
Here is the funny part,There were some people who had top government jobs and actually acted like snobs but it is funny now when I remember them running like everyone to get rice to eat
The families with most kids were lucky because ever kid had a container.
Most beautiful was neighbours helping neighbors

Bernadette Burns

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Some years ago I was at Buckingham Palace and met a retired senior Royal Navy officer who said he was dispatched to BH to take charge of the initial recovery. He said everyone here was in shock. Mostly its disbelief at such wanton devastation

Alan Usher

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The late Bishop Dorrick Wright was saved during Hurricane Hattie, by climbing a Coconut Tree, the rest of his family drowned. - - That is why his insignia as Bishop included a coconut tree. - I saw this at Kenrick Hall in St Louis Missouri. - Also in Mullins River I was told, people were also saved by climbing coconut trees. - A person told me that the tree swung, but he held on tight. Hector Silva
I attended a conference in Barbados, where it was explained how Hurricanes are formed and the features it can develop, One of them is embeded tornadoes, Jumping or skipping formation and in Belize City it caused powerful Earthquakes when the waves ( surf ) it generated hit the Reefs. - - And lengthy explanations were given to these and other features. - Among some of the questions were " IS IT A LIVING ORGANISM ? The answer was YES and it was explained why. - It was pointed out that Hurricane Hattie had about SIX tornadoes. One by Eve street, - One by Foreshore, - one by Battle field, One around Landivar and I don't remember the others in the plan. - The base of the Fort George Hotel felt the shock of one of the TREMORS. Some damages were done to a few structures. . .

Hector Silva