Hurricane Iris Tears Into Belize, Damage Feared

Updated: Tue, Oct 09 3:50 AM EDT
By Greg Brosnan
BELMOPAN, Belize (Reuters) - Hurricane Iris roared into Belize on Tuesday, sending residents fleeing inland and threatening to inflict serious damage on the tiny Central American nation.

But the compact, powerful storm began weakening shortly after making landfall late on Monday about 80 miles south-southwest of Belize City, the U.S. National Weather Service said.

Iris hit the country's Caribbean coast with winds of 140 mph but winds dropped to 80 mph by 2:00 a.m. EDT.

Before the storm hit, Belizeans and tourists abandoned coastal mainland areas and picturesque coral keys for relative safety inland as the strongest storm of the season approached.

Prime Minister Said Musa said that up to 15,000 people had evacuated inland in the country, which is about the size of Massachusetts.

"This really looks like it's going to be a big one," he told Reuters in his Belmopan office. "But a major effort has been made to keep people safe in all coastal areas."

Carlos Fuller, a spokesman for Belize's National Emergency Organization, predicted Iris would cause "massive destruction" in this former British colony between Mexico and Guatemala.

Belize, which has a population of about 250,000, is no stranger to hurricanes. In 1961 a killer storm prompted the government to move the capital inland from Belize City to Belmopan.

Last year, Hurricane Keith killed 15 people in Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua and caused an estimated $200 million in damage to Belize's economy, dependent on bananas, sugar and tourism.

Gen. Earl Arthurs, deputy head of Belize's National Emergency Organization, said that once Iris made landfall, no rescue operations could take place.

"If somebody is stranded at this stage it's not safe to send people after them," he said.

As Iris approached, people made frantic efforts to protect their homes and head inland. Buses, cars and pick-up trucks laden with people poured away from the coast.


On Monday in a village outside Belmopan 21-year-old teacher Christopher Banner stood on a makeshift ladder and nailed boards over the windows of his wooden hut.

"We're not taking any chances," he said. "We're boarding up and moving out."

A red flag was hoisted above Belize's national assembly showing the highest level of hurricane danger.

Of the 5,000 inhabitants of Independence, situated on the coast some 116 miles south of Belize City, about a quarter headed out. Wealthier residents left in jeeps piled with mattresses, cooking pots and household possessions.

But most people living in the key were too poor to own cars and were unable to get a place on the daily bus inland, so they were piling into the local school.

They frantically hammered wooden boards onto windows and stocked up on food, causing chaos in the town's general store.

Iris killed three people in the Dominican Republic, where the storm demolished a house on Saturday, the Dominican Civil Defense Force said. Iris' rains lashed parts of Jamaica on Sunday but largely spared the island.

The ninth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, Iris was upgraded Saturday afternoon from a tropical storm, meaning its maximum sustained winds reached or surpassed 74 mph.

[This message has been edited by Marty (edited 10-09-2001).]