Well now, here we go again. In Belize we believe the hurricane season really begins with September and ends in October. These two months are when we have historically experienced most of our hurricane excitement.
The thing about a major hurricane is that in a matter of three or four days, after the first serious warning, you may have to pick up everything you can and run for your life, and when you reach your place of refuge, sometimes less than a day after that you may be given the “all clear.” Go back home, and resume life as usual. Hurricanes, beloved, are humbling experiences. They put things in perspective. There are no guarantees in life.
In the years since Hurricane Mitch scared the bejesus out of Belizeans in 1998, then swerved south at the last minute to devastate Honduras and the Bay Islands, San Pedro Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker have been battered by Keith, Placencia has been levelled by Iris, and Corozal Town and environs seriously damaged by Dean. Casualties have been minimal, but structural damage immense. It is impossible to make an accurate assessment of the damage to agricultural crops and marine fisheries.
Despite these serious storms, Belizeans realize that, compared to New Orleans, say, we have been fortunate. Since the last time Belize City was struck by a major storm, Hurricane Hattie in 1961, New Orleans has been struck twice by brutes – Betsy in 1965 and Katrina in 2005. The law of averages suggests Belize’s population center, which was merely bothered by Hurricane Greta in 1978, would be wise to say some prayers.
The settlement of Belize’s worst disaster ever took place on September 10, 1931, a day of celebration. Belize City was struck directly by a cyclone whose eye caused a lull in the hurricane force winds, a lull which tempted many Belizeans to go outside, where they met death when the hurricane’s fury returned.
The strange thing about ‘31, which killed an estimated 3,000 Belizeans, was that all the old people say that no one in Belize knew anything about hurricanes in 1931. They had no idea what to expect. This suggests to us that at least a century, or more, may have passed without Belize Town being victimized by a hurricane. There was no collective memory of such a storm when 1931 brought massive death and unprecedented trauma.
There was an important difference between 1931 and 1961, apart from the fact that the Hattie death toll was only a tenth of the 1931 casualty total. Hattie’s eye passed to the south of Belize City, somewhere between the City and Dangriga, then known as Stann Creek Town. As a result, unlike the case in 1931, Stann Creek Town took a major hit and suffered many casualties. As far as we know, Stann Creek Town‘s experiences in Hattie have not been documented.
Between 1931 and 1961, Hurricane Janet wiped out Corozal Town in 1955. What you see in Corozal Town is a new municipality designed after Janet by town planner Henry Fairweather with the guidance and blessing of Philip Goldson. In 1955, Hon. Philip was “Member for Social Services.” He had been thus appointed to the Legislative Council after the People’s United Party won eight of nine seats in the first national elections held under universal adult suffrage. The older public officers will tell you that the new Corozal Town was a great accomplishment by Goldson and Fairweather, an accomplishment which has not been properly chronicled or recognized.
Rt. Hon. George Price has, of course, received proper credit for the Belmopan new capital concept, an idea he conceived of following the confusion Hattie inflicted on his government in 1961. When Mitch threatened a direct hit on Belize City in 1998, thousands upon thousands of city dwellers fled to Belmopan. That flight was an episode in itself, because the basic infrastructure of the new capital was strained past breaking point. Fortunately, following the exodus west on the Tuesday, people were able to begin returning to the old capital the following day, Wednesday.
There is one good aspect to hurricane and hurricane scares. They break down all the barriers which our citizens have built to separate and protect themselves from each other because of all the city’s “bad vibes.” Apart from a small radical element which prays for hurricanes to come and introduce mayhem, everybody gets frightened together when there is a hurricane scare, and we then recover the community and commonality which have essentially disappeared from our lives.
As they say in Islam: “Man plans, and Allah plans. And Allah is the best of planners.”