A group of us were reminiscing this Tuesday morning about our experiences with Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (probably late October). One of the group said that Carlos Fuller, Belize’s chief meteorologist at the time, had not been exaggerating about Mitch, because Mitch did some absolutely devastating damage to Honduras, and I believe parts of Guatemala and Nicaragua got their share, so to speak.
Belize escaped with not a scratch physically, but there had been days of fear which reached near panic, if not outright panic, in many cases that Tuesday morning when Mitch’s ominous eye, with Category 5 velocity and storm surge, stared straight at Belize.
The thing about Mitch was that this was the first monster hurricane when everybody here had cable television and when we Belizeans could see what was in store for us, with the same Mitch feature stories being repeated every 20 or 25 minutes on the Weather Channel. (What we mean by the last part of the previous sentence is that a storm doesn’t move or change that much in a half hour’s time, so we were watching almost the same alarming thing over and over.) We Belizeans sat in front of the “boob tube” as if we were mesmerized. The Mitch eye became better and better formed, until it was like a perfect circle. This was a real devil of a storm, and we could see it build and build until everyone began bolting west the Tuesday morning.
To be truthful, I had viewed Mr. Fuller as somewhat melodramatic. I could see the storm was very serious (who couldn’t?), but Hattie was as bad as they come, and Belize survived. I had my hurricane plan in place. I knew my Buttonwood Bay wooden home (floating foundation) was not safe. I would move to a friend’s home a couple blocks away which I believed could withstand any such hurricane.
But, a really weird and scary thing happened, and it happened like last minute. I think, in retrospect, my wife was trying to save too many of her precious household possessions, and when she started sending things over to my friend’s home, my friend’s son and my courier daughter got to exchanging words. Something went wrong. My friend was not around, and my personality is such that all I said to myself was, son, you better find somewhere else fast. This would have been around 8:30 that exodus Tuesday morning, that “run west” Tuesday morning when Mitch was terrifying Belize.
I said wife, you better ask Marcelina if we can sleep on her floor. Mrs. Marceline Castillo Cowo, now deceased, was one of my wife’s relatives who lived in Santa Elena, the twin town to San Ignacio in El Cayo. Marcelina said, no problem.
I think I must have packed sixteen or seventeen garbage bags of clothes and household effects in the back of the single cab F-150 Ford truck I was driving at the time. The F-150 had a radiator problem which was troubling, but had not been a major concern of mine. Still, the length of time it took me to reach the beginning of the Western Highway by Lord’s Ridge from my home on Seashore Drive in Buttonwood Bay, the traffic being so crazy, got me to thinking about my friend, the radiator. The Western Highway was totally bumper-to-bumper when I reached there, I would say at 9:45 the Tuesday morning.
Traffic was moving around 15 to 18 miles an hour. It took quite a bit more than twice as long to reach Belmopan as it normally does. If you had a flat or any kind of vehicle problem, you were on your own. A kind of glassy-eyed fear had set in amongst us fleeing Belizeans. And I had a suspect radiator. But, beloved, the Most High was kind: I reached Belmopan safely sometime after noon, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The road to San Ignacio/Santa Elena was less congested, so I could drive faster, with less pressure on my radiator.
It was just me and my wife in the F-150. My youngest daughter, was in the care of Indira Craig, mother to Mose’s older daughter. They went to Belmopan, as did my oldest daughter, who was married at the time. My second youngest daughter was in college in Tampa, Florida, during the Mitch drama.
Now when it comes to Mose himself, over the years he has kept telling everyone who will listen, a story about my swearing to stay in Belize City and then running to Cayo last minute. But, I could not possibly have foreseen the rancor between my friend’s son and my daughter, plus, when I decided to split, I was leaving Mose and Michael, my youngest son, in a veritable hurricane shelter – Kremandala’s three-storey ferro-concrete building on Partridge Street.
There had been a major sabotage attack on the KREM Radio broadcast tower on the said Partridge in February of 1998, eight months earlier, and we had no confidence in our tower’s ability (it was 190 feet high at the time) to withstand Mitch. We are in a residential area, so we decided to dismantle our tower. Rene Villanueva and Love FM made a big name for themselves during Mitch, because a damaged KREM was missing in action.
Anyway, when my wife and I reached San Ignacio/Santa Elena going for 1:30 the afternoon, we decided to drive to Cahal Pech and see if Dan Silva had any space. He did, in a new construction on the top floor, but warned that if the hurricane came we would have to come downstairs. The room was a godsend, compared to sleeping on Marcelina’s floor, but after settling in we drove over the Hawkesworth to Santa Elena to tell her thanks for the offer anyway.
We left Marcelina’s around 3:30 the afternoon to return to Cahal Pech, but one of Marcelina’s relatives asked us to drop him home across the bridge in San Ignacio. Well, the kindness led to big time stress.
When you are leaving San Ignacio, at the front of the Cahal Pech hill, headed west to the outskirts of San Ignacio and to Benque Viejo, there is a large gas station on your left. A quarter mile or more out of San Ignacio on the right side of the road, there are a lot of dwelling houses, but you have to descend steeply, into a kind of gully. This was where our passenger lived. The F-150 did not have four-wheel drive, and the gully road was slippery. I could not climb back up to the highway. If you remember Mitch, it started getting dark from around 4 that Tuesday afternoon.
Mose disagrees vehemently with me, but to the best of my recollection, Mitch started moving away from Belize and south to Honduras between 1:30 and 2:00 the afternoon. In other words, by the time my wife and I got stuck in that gully with dark setting in along with a drizzle, we were safe from Mitch but did not know it. Nevertheless, a personal drama began in that dark gully because I had to leave Mrs. Hyde alone in the truck and head back to Cahal Pech to get help. But, that would be another story for another time.
I think Keith came after Mitch, and then Iris threatened us around 2001, if I remember correctly. By the time of Iris, running to Dan Silva’s Cahal Pech had become a routine for me and Mrs. Hyde when hurricane time. Well, a crack addict who used to deliver butane gas to our home, picked up on our movements. He recruited a guy just out of jail and by the early evening of Iris he had broken into our home while we were at Cahal Pech. He and his accomplice hustled a truck after their first trip with our household effects, and were coming back to empty our home when a neighbor tipped off Mose, who was covering the hurricane that time at KREM Radio. That was my Iris stats. Needless to say, another story for another time.
In conclusion, I would remark on how speedily we hurricane-vulnerable Belizeans recover from our fear and panic once we get the sense that everything is clear. If you’ve left your home, you see, you have to rush back as fast as you can to protect same. This is probably the main reason why some Belizeans take long to run for shelter. There are predatory Belizeans (not Ashcroft) who make their own hurricane plans: these are those who pray for big storms. For real.
For more on Hurricane Mitch, and its affect on Belize and Ambergris Caye, click here.