September 18, 2003
In Hurricanes' Most Familiar Territory, Paradises Are Routinely Lost

As Hurricane Isabel nears North Carolina, where it is expected to veer toward Pennsylvania, there is mystery in its winds. For many of the people bracing for the effects of the storm along a broad swath of the East Coast, a hurricane is a rare event, and even the ones that arrive generally strike only a glancing blow. But in the Caribbean, where a storm's potential for death, destruction and ruin is too well known, residents are on the equivalent of a constant red alert virtually every day of the Atlantic hurricane season. There, from June through November, a churning anxiety accompanies the news of each weather system that is spawned, usually in waters off the west coast of Africa, and sets its sights on the Caribbean Sea.

The heightened awareness is threaded through the rhythms of the region. On any given island, residents know if there is high ground and how to get there, which waterways will dangerously swell, that a storm surge is deadly and that a storm's aftermath is deadlier still. They know to batten down their homes and seek cover, but they also know that there's only so much they can do, that nature always has the upper hand.

Some Americans know the storms firsthand only if they have been unlucky in booking Caribbean vacations during hurricane season. Cruises, airfares, hotels and resorts are often a bargain at this time of year, especially for travelers who either accept risk or fail to understand it. And there are many such Americans, as I learned when I served from 1998 to 2001 as United States ambassador to Belize, which is situated where the Caribbean Sea meets Central America.

Killer hurricanes become lore in the United States, centering around the big ones: Camille, Andrew and the deadliest, in Galveston, in 1900. In the Caribbean, that kind of storm is a more regular visitor, destroying cities, tourist attractions and other industry, like banana plantations, sugar cane fields and fisheries. Decades ago, when Belize was a colony known as British Honduras, and before storms were named, Belize City was inundated by waters that surged over the coral reef offshore.

Among the thousands killed was an American vice consul who was swept from the consulate. That building, vulnerably situated at sea level on Belize's coast, is now the United States Embassy. After another hurricane strike in the 1960's, the Belizeans moved their capital 60 miles west, to Belmopan and safety. But the American embassy didn't follow. Trying to explain this precarious situation to the State Department, I said that in the path of a powerful hurricane, the embassy would be a sitting duck, except that ducks float.

When a catastrophic hurricane approaches the coastal United States, there is typically ample warning and a variety of escape routes. In Belize on the mainland, there is just one two-lane road, prone to floods, heading west to the mountains. Few besides tourists have the resources to get completely out of harm's way.

During three storm seasons, I monitored many systems that sputtered into nothing. Inevitably, though, one would whip itself up, from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane, while rolling west across the Atlantic, becoming the first in a volley of gargantuan bowling balls coming down an alley, with the lush Caribbean islands as the unmovable pins.

One such storm in 1998 was Mitch, which like Isabel earlier this week was a Category 5 hurricane, with winds exceeding 155 miles per hour. It aimed for Belize, prompting an evacuation of American civilians and some embassy staff. But on its approach, Mitch turned sharply south and weakened to a tropical storm. That might have been good news, but it hovered for days, unleashing torrential rains and mudslides that killed 11,000 people, most of them in Nicaragua and Honduras.

Late in September 2000, Hurricane Keith formed in waters south of Belize, and 12 hours after reaching hurricane velocity, it puffed up to Category 4. It hit hardest at Belize's main tourist island, Ambergris Caye, then backed up and pounded it again. Homes and businesses were splintered, and water stranded whole villages.

In ferrying U.S. aid to devastated areas, I saw no self-pity among the people, most of whom had no insurance to cover what they had lost. They immediately set about rebuilding, so efficiently that there are few clues now to how much destruction Keith caused. For Belizeans, this was not a ruined vacation. It was their life.