by Alan Jackson
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to the Fisheries Unit Laboratory in Belize City from August 1976 to October 1978. Initially I lived in a boarding house on Prince Street during a four-week Peace Corps orientation. After that I was expected to find my own housing. Most PCVs in Belize City doubled or tripled up and shared flats wherever they could find reasonable rent. I had heard good things about a family that had just hosted two PCVs during our orientation weeks. One of those PCVs decided to continue boarding with that family while the other was moving to his jobsite in San Antonio, Toledo. I asked the family if I could board with them, and they welcomed me into their home. They were a young and charming couple with two daughters, 3 and 5 years old. They had recently moved into a large, two-story cement house on Euphrates Avenue between King and Dean streets. I stayed with them for the rest of my two years in Belize.
I woke up early on the morning of Sunday, September 17, 1978. I quickly ate breakfast, left the house and stepped out onto Euphrates Avenue. I knew that Hurricane Greta was tracking toward Belize, but there did not seem to be a sense of urgency in the community. I had arranged to meet a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Matt Connor, who was going to walk with me around the city and shoot some photographs. Matt had an expensive camera and had agreed that, if I supplied the film, he would take the pictures. My two years in Belize would be ending in three weeks, and I wanted to get a few more pictures of the city before I left
Matt was a memorable character. He was funny, outgoing, good-looking and smart. He was also a stylish dresser and stood out from the rest of us PCVs by wearing crisply starched and ironed button up shirts instead of the de facto Peace Corps uniform of faded tee shirts and jeans. Soon after arriving in Belize, Matt began dating the daughter of his host family. He also bought an old car and was the only PCV who had his own vehicle, which was strictly against Peace Corps rules. Matt had previously been a PCV in Southeast Asia but was reassigned to Belize for reasons left only to our speculation.
Neither one of us had enough money to buy gas, so Matt met me at the Fisheries Unit Laboratory on Princess Margaret Drive, and we started our photo shoot from there on foot. It was a beautiful morning with a deep blue sky studded with large white clouds, and there was a light breeze coming out of the north.
We left the Fisheries compound and headed south on Barrack Road. We stopped to take pictures of Sea View Hospital, the Frederick Gahne Town Clock on Barrack Road, Her Majesty’s Prison on Gaol Lane, St. Catherine Convent, the U.S. Consulate, the Peace Corps Office on Cork Street, the Paslow Building, the Price home on Pickstock Street, Holy Redeemer Cathedral, Swing Bridge, the Old Market, the Coca Cola clock at Market Square, and finally the Courthouse. Looking up, we saw a single red flag flying high above the Courthouse to indicate that Belize City was under a hurricane watch. Both Regent and Albert streets were nearly deserted, which was not unusual for an early Sunday morning. The stillness of the city, combined with the sight of the red hurricane watch flag, gave us an ominous feeling, and we decided to end our photo shoot early.
The next morning, I went to work at Fisheries. Reports issued over Radio Belize indicated that Hurricane Greta was moving west-northwest just off the coast of Honduras toward Belize. Mr. Miller, the Fisheries Administrator, called a meeting first thing that morning and outlined what we would have to do to be ready for Greta. We all pitched in and put up the storm shutters on the windows. Even though there were about 30 windows the task was not too difficult because each window was clearly numbered and matched to a numbered shutter.
Belize authorities had recently seized two Honduran sloop-rigged smacks that were caught fishing illegally in Belizean waters. These two sailboats were temporarily moored behind Fisheries alongside our research vessel, Panulirus Argus. Mr. Miller instructed our boat captain, Romie, to take all three vessels up Haulover Creek to safety. There was to be a special mid-day swinging of Swing Bridge to accommodate all the boats seeking safe harbor. The plan was to have Romie pilot the Panulirus Argus and tow the two sailboats behind. I would be at the tiller of one and Dwight would be at the tiller of the other. Neither Dwight nor I was an experienced boatman, so this was bound to be a tricky maneuver.
Romie got the boats ready and we slowly made our way to the mouth of the harbor. We could see boats lined up four and five abreast waiting for the bridge to swing. After a lot of jostling and maneuvering we took our place amongst the other boats. Despite the inadvertent bumping and scraping of boats, no one seemed agitated. There was a kind of comraderies among the boatmen as though we were all in this together. We finally secured the boats a short distance up the river, and my workday was done.
Mr. Miller told the staff that they were free to stay home and be with their families on Tuesday, the day that Greta was anticipated to make landfall in Belize. He asked me, however, because I had no home or family in Belize, to report to work. My job would be to maintain VHF radio contact with the Forestry Office at Augustine and then, before the road to the airport became impassable, to drive the Fisheries Land Rover to the airport where it would be safe from coastal flooding. I considered my host family as my actual family, and I was tempted to tell Mr. Miller that I really should go home to help them prepare instead of taking care of Fisheries. But, really, Mr. Miller was in a bind, had his own young family to be with, and I was happy to help.
On Tuesday, I went to work at Fisheries as usual and waited for Greta to make herself known. By midafternoon, the breeze was picking up and around 4:00 it started to rain. The yard in front was filling with water, and waves were dashing up against the planking of the little pier behind Fisheries. Sunset would not be until 5:50 but the sky already seemed to be darkening. At 5:00 I contacted Augustine Forestry Station to let them know that I was about to shut down the radio and take the Land Rover to higher ground. I jumped in the Land Rover and started to drive out of the compound. I immediately had a sinking feeling that maybe I was leaving for higher ground a little too late. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to make it to the airport before the Northern Road flooded, especially along the stretch where the Belize River and the Caribbean Sea nearly meet.
To my relief, the drive to the airport was without incident. The water had not yet risen much, although there were three or four inches of water in some areas. Otherwise, the road was clear with just a small amount of leaf and branch litter on it. At the airport I parked and locked up the Land Rover. Then I started to wonder, “Now what am I supposed to do?” Funny, but that was the first time I had even thought about having to spend the night at the airport. I really wanted to go back home and help my host family prepare. I knew that they could use the help; it was just the husband, wife and two little girls. I could help them get things off the downstairs floor.
It was now dark, and the wind was gusting strongly. I looked around the airport grounds and noticed that someone had just turned on the headlights of a red pickup truck. It looked like it was getting ready to leave the airport. I flagged it down and asked the driver where he was going. He told me that he was hoping to make it back to Belize City. There were two other people with the driver in the cab. I asked if I could get a ride, and he told me to hop into the truck bed. The bed was not covered, but it was not raining at the time. I hopped in and tapped on the top of the cab, “Let’s go!”
The pickup truck headed out of the airport grounds and toward the Northern Road. I hunkered down in the bed up against the cab. Just then it began to rain. I was wearing only a tee shirt and jeans and did not have a jacket with me. We turned onto the Northern Road and began to make our way toward the city. Almost immediately I realized that the odds of making it to Belize City were not good. I did not know it at the time, but the hurricane had just come ashore near Dangriga. It was raining harder, and I was thoroughly soaked and becoming cold. Within a mile we encountered several inches of water on the road. We pressed slowly on, dodging what looked like the deepest water and hoping for the best. Somewhere just before reaching Haulover Bridge, the pickup dropped into a large pothole, water came up to and into the engine compartment, and that was it. The engine stalled and could not be restarted.
Just then, and before I could really appreciate our predicament, a British Forces Bedford 4-ton, high clearance truck, headed in the opposite direction, drove up to us and came to a stop. A soldier got out of the truck to check on us. He said that he was going to Airport Camp and that we should go with him. I didn’t hesitate and climbed into the back of the large truck which was covered with canvas. The driver of the pickup said that he thought the worst of the hurricane was over and that he and his two companions would stay with his vehicle.
The British Forces truck pulled away from the stranded pickup truck, and we were on our way to Airport Camp. Even though the wind had now died down considerably, the road was littered with tree branches. At least twice along the way, the road was blocked by a large tree limb, and soldiers got out with machetes and a chainsaw to clear the way. It must have taken an hour to go the four miles to Airport Camp.
We pulled into Airport Camp, and I was ushered into a building and then into a small room and given a folding metal chair to sit on. The soldier said that I could stay there until morning. He also promised to bring me a blanket and a bowl of hot soup. He then left, and I was alone. I was cold and wet, and I looked forward to drying off and warming up with the soup, but nobody returned to check on me. I was left there for the duration of the night.
As soon as I saw the first light of morning, I let myself out of the building and walked to the airport where I had left the Land Rover the night before. I was now somewhat dry and not too cold, and I was happy to be going home. Much to my relief, the Land Rover started right up, and I pulled away from the airport. The water on the Northern Road had receded. The road was muddy and littered with debris but quite passable. There were no other vehicles on the road. As I entered the city and approached Central American Boulevard, I did not immediately see any hurricane damage, just a layer of mud on the streets. As I crossed over Belcan Bridge I looked to my left along Haulover Creek toward downtown, and I saw some houses that were severely damaged if not totally destroyed. I saw nobody on the streets. The city seemed eerily deserted.
I reached home to find my host family finishing up scooping the mud from the lower floor of their two-story home. There was a water line that went two or three inches up the walls. They looked up from their work at me and said, “Alan, nice of you to come lend a hand.” By noon, the house seemed back to normal. There was no other damage to the house. The mud on the streets of Belize City, however, would remain, fetid and foul, for days.