The Belize Cave and Wilderness Rescue Team
Organized, Trained and Making a Difference
For the last 6 years, Ian Anderson of the Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, Belize, originally from Vancouver Canada, has had a dream and has strived to put that dream into reality. The creation of the "Belize Cave and Wilderness Rescue Team" created by Ian Anderson and based at the Caves Branch Jungle Lodge has now been tested and proven to be an intricate part of Belize Rescue and Relief as well as recognized by the United States FEMA organization.
Immediately after Hurricane Keith destroyed much of San Pedro, members of the "Belize Cave and Wilderness Rescue Team" arrived by boat on the shores of San Pedro, fully supplied and equipped to set up a fully operational kitchen and medical clinic. They spent 10 days on the Island providing thousands of meals, surveying the damage, identifying immediate needs and providing medical attention to hundreds.
During this relief effort just over a year ago, the team made many friends and supporters in San Pedro, many of whom are still talking of their efforts.
On September 18, one week after the World Trade Center disaster, Ian Anderson and the "Belize Cave and Wilderness Rescue Team" received an email from Bruce Hagen, Chief rescue instructor for the team and medical commander of a California FEMA team. He asked them to assist in the relief efforts in New York. The "Belize Cave and Wilderness Rescue Team" would have been the only non American rescue / relief organization allowed into the disaster site to work hand in hand with the U.S. federal rescue organizations.
However, as they were awaiting airline reservation confirmations to travel to N.Y., Hurricane Iris was moving into the Caribbean and towards Belize. Although assisting in N.Y. would certainly have put this team into the realm of recognized international rescue organizations, they thought their efforts would be needed more desperately in Belize if Hurricane Iris did indeed hit.
And it did.
On Monday, October 8th, as Hurricane Iris was destroying most of the southlands, The Rescue Team was preparing. In addition, Caves Branch was the refuge centre for almost 40 Belizeans and tourist that had escaped north that day from the Placencia / Toledo areas. All day Tuesday, The Rescue Team continued gathering supplies and water and just after midnight Tuesday night, a 3 truck convoy departed Caves Branch Jungle Lodge with 3000 lbs of food, 250 gallons for bottled water, full kitchen set ups and medical supplies. 9 members of The Rescue Team formed the core and an additional 5 tourists who had harbored at Caves Branch Jungle Lodge the night before asked to join in. In all, 14 departed. Among the 5 Volunteers were newlyweds Michelle and Eric Woods of Williams Lake, B.C., Canada, who spent their honey moon with the rescue / relief team.
Most of Tuesday was also spent gathering information using two meter radios from the Toledo area. It was decided that their destination was to be the Mayan village of San Marcos. The worse hit of all the villages. At Independence, they augmented their initial supplies from the NEMO supply depot and continued on into Toledo.
Crossing Deep River was the first challenge. The river being at a high flood stage flooded almost 5 feet over the bridge. After loading all the food and medicine stocks into the bucket of an earthmover then sealing the engine and gas tanks, the convoy was towed through the 5 foot swells by the earthmovers. Once on the other side, after ensuring that the engines were still able to run, the Rescue Team continued.
As we moved deeper into Toledo, it was evident just how much destruction had occurred. Where there was, just 48 hour before, a 100 foot canopy of tropical rainforest, abundant with wildlife, birds and monkeys, was now nothing more than broken off stumps. Nothing existed above the 15 foot mark. Telephone poles covered the southern highway, like toothpicks flung from their box. The most amazing realization was seeing, as the telephone poles lay across the road was that almost every pole had been originally put no more than 3 feet into the ground. How they ever stood alone in the first place was a mystery. How BTL ever expected them to survive any type of a storm was incredible.
As we moved deeper down the southern highway, trees were strewn across the road, most were already cut out by workmen. More and thicker debris blocked our way down and the jungle became less and less by the mile.
Finally turning off into the entrance road of San Marcos, I just could not believe my eyes. House after house after house was destroyed. Throughout the village of 87 original homes, only 3 were left standing. Our survey later told us that approximately 560 people were homeless and all had been lost.
We decided to set up our base across from the water tower on the cement slabs of where the two school houses had once stood but instead now just a huge pile of strewn wood, a lot of it not even considered lumber.
The village enthusiastically welcomed us and with a lot of their help, by night fall the first kitchen was operational. The following day we assisted in organizing three other kitchens and provided food stocks and fresh water.
Later in the morning a large contingent arrived from Caye Caulker and they en mass resurrected a portion of the collapsed school house. We then tarped the roof and moved our food stocks into it and used the other half as our clinic base.
During the first 6 days, almost 1600 meals per day were being prepared from the 4 kitchens with almost all of the village ladies taking shifts from 4 am until 8 pm at night preparing the meals. We also attended to over 900 illnesses during the two weeks in San Marco as well as transported 7 very sick persons to the Punta Gorda Hospital for medical attention we could not provide.
During the first 6 days it was evident that the men of the village were doing nothing to alleviate their condition. No houses be being lifted, no roofs were being built. I just could not understand this. After a long conversation with the chairman, I was told that a government official had told them not to rebuild as the government was going to build them all new houses. In total disbelief, I was appalled.
The following day the chairman called a meeting of the village men. After watching them argue for hours, I could not stand aside any longer and walked into the meeting with one of our team members who spoke fluent Ketchi as his native tongue. I told them they could not wait for the government to build new houses. I told them the government was NOT GOING TO build all new houses regardless what they were told. The Government simply could not .. did not have the money to build everyone new houses. After 45 minutes of rallying the forces, they were determined to start rebuilding the following day. I suggested they break the village into teams and just build one house per day per team. In a week all the houses would be rebuilt. They all applauded and clapped each other on the back. Off they went all pumped up .. but I asked myself how long would it last.
The following day, group by group, they all approached me .. shoulders back and heads raised high. One by one, each group stated that they did not build one house that day! My god I thought, why not? "We built TWO houses" they all said, as proud as could be. They continued building each and every day.
Each day was filled with the bright eyes and smiles of all the children. I had never seen so many smiling eyes before. But the clinic was filled every day with children and mothers. There was so much chronic sickness in the village. But by the end of the two weeks, I felt that the general health of the village was a bit better than even before the storm.
I had received an email from Malcom Hitchcock, owner of Fido's in San Pedro. We had been remembered from the previous year and Malcom had actually graduated from one of our rescue courses just a month before. Malcom and many other friends that we had helped the year before had thrown a fund raiser and collected $20,000 (bz) for our relief effort. This was incredible. Knowing how stretched NEMO was already, we were now able to totally subsidize our relief without taking from the already low stocks at NEMO.
Over the next week, the San Pedro fund sent down to San Marcos two convoys of basic food and sanitation stock to us. The transportation was provided by the British base in Ladysville. The food continued to be supplied to the kitchens and the clinic was seeing over 150 persons per day. We offered assistance to the "Acres of Love" home for children. What a wonderful organization they are. Although they were able to repair all damage quickly by everyone pitching in to do so, especially the kids, food was short for everyone.
I contacted our medical and rescue instructors, chief instructor Bruce Hagen and Dr. Keith Brown. Bruce was still in New York working with FEMA at the disaster site so he was unable to come to Belize but Dr. Keith immediately left for Belize arriving in Punta Gorda on the last plane before dark. In addition to his own self arriving, Dr. Brown had also brought with him $1200.00 (us) worth of medical supplies and antibiotics.
At the end of the first week, all was set up and working well in San Marcos. Our people were running the clinic with assistance from a local "future nurse", the village ladies in control of the kitchens and now the men were rebuilding the houses. The Rescue Team then toured the 9 other villages to determine if adequate food and medical support was being offered. Upon their return at the end of the day, they reported that NEMO had been doing a fine job distributing food, but that there was a need for additional medical attention in some of the other villages.
We were informed by the hospital that there was a concern that one of the outer villages had not been visited. Of course there was no road any where near the village, so the following morning a team of 7 set off. The expedition was to assess the size of the village (as the government had no information on it), health and food needs. After parking in the nearest village we initially received little co-operation from the village chairman and unfortunately were forced to coerce the chairman to provide us with a couple of mules to carry our medical supplies and off they set into the jungle that had just be torn apart by Iris. After a grueling 4 hour march, and having to machete most of the way, we finally arrived at Santa Anna. The villagers, all Guatemala refugees who still flew the Guatemala flag, had already started rebuilding the village and cleaning their milpa's but the food was low in the village and malnutrition apparent. Our team reported to NEMO the stats on the village and along with Dr. Keith reported to the hospital that if immediate relief did not reach the village, a number of children will have died before a month’s time from malnutrition.
We then started, with the assistance of Dr. Keith, providing mobile clinics to 4 of the villages noted as being most needy. During these clinic rounds, we attended to an additional 580 persons, including a number of minor surgical procedures.
As the village of San Marcos was rebuilding itself and the number of daily visits dropped from almost 200 per day down to 3 or 4 and most of the homeless now out of the shelters and back under their own roofs, we decided that we had done all that we could for the time. A number of our people had been quite ill during the 14 days away and myself even plugged into IV for 3 days.
After 14 days away, we loaded our trucks and headed home.
The people of the "Belize Cave and Wilderness Rescue Team" and the 5 foreign tourists that worked side by side with us as part of "The Rescue Team" did not spend 14 days in Toledo for a thank you or for recognition. But as we drove out of the village every member of the village came to the road side and waved and applauded as we drove out. That was all the thanks we needed.
In total, The Belize Cave and Wilderness Rescue Team and our supporters provided relief of approx 17,000 meals and immediate medical attention to approx 1600 illness over the first 14 days after Iris struck.
Although the initial relief was immediate, there will be an incredible demand for continued relief until new crops can be planted and harvested from the destruction of the area. Thousands of people, most of whom are children have been left homeless and without farms to provide for themselves.
Continued relief must be provided for another 12 months.
The Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, home base for the "Belize Cave and Wilderness Rescue Team" is continuing to accept donations towards the relief efforts. If you would like to help, please send your donations to Caves Branch Relief fund, P.O. Box 356, Belmopan, Belize. All cheques can be made out to "Caves Branch" but please make a note on the cheques "Relief fund".