Round-Up of News about the Impact of Hurricane Keith on Belize
By Lan Sluder
Editor & Publisher
Belize First Magazine http://www.turq.com/belizefirst/
• Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker were hit hard by Hurricane Keith. Fortunately, only one person is known to have been killed and fewer than 10 people are missing. Scores of homes and some hotels were damaged on these two resort islands. Several hundred island residents are homeless. Those without property on the islands or other essential reason to be there should not attempt to come at this time. Repairs are under way, and the British Army and Belize Defence Forces are on the islands. Boat and air service between Belize City and Ambergris and Caulker are resuming. The islands could welcome visitors again beginning in about two weeks. Hotel damage reports are included in this update. Most hotels expect to have roof and other repairs completed within two to four weeks, easily in time for the high season.
• Most of mainland Belize had minimal impact from storm. There was significant flooding in Belize City and on the Western and Northern highways. No deaths were reported as a direct result of the storm, but a Venus bus accident on a flooded highway north of Belize City resulted in the death of three Belizeans. Placencia, Punta Gorda, Cayo, the Mountain Pine Ridge, Orange Walk and Corozal had little if any damage and should be back to normal within days. No serious damage was reported to any hotels or other tourist site or facility in these areas or in Belize City. Airports including the international airport are now open and international and domestic airlines are flying again. Most roads are open and passable. After this week, visitors should experience few if any difficulties traveling in mainland Belize.
• Remote cayes report no deaths or serious injuries and only moderate to light damage to facilities. Most resorts report no significant damage and expect to reopen for business soon.
• Belize officials estimate damage from the storm will reach US$200 million.
This is an update, as of October 5, 2000, on what happened in Belize due to Hurricane Keith. As of this writing, telephones (except some cell phones) and power are still out on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker and so information is limited and preliminary. Information has been drawn from many sources -- Internet bulletin board postings, telephone interviews, e-mail messages and interviews, wire service reports, GOB official news releases and other sources. I believe the best single source of Keith information, on the Internet or anywhere, is //www.AmbergrisCaye.com. The Webmaster, Marty Casado, is in Oregon and is coordinating telephone, ham radio and e-mail messages from Belize and elsewhere about the storm, then posting them on his Web site. (A sad aspect of the hurricane situation is that an apparently mentally ill individual has been posting messages on the AmbergrisCaye.com hurricane bulletin board falsely claiming that various hotels were destroyed and many people killed. This individual, who has plagued Belize bulletin boards in the past, also has e-mailed persons posting on the bulletin boards claiming to be raising funds for hurricane relief. Those who receive suspicious e-mail of this type should consider notifying the sender's Internet Service Provider and also, if appropriate, police authorities.)
Background: A tropical depression appeared suddenly September 29 off the coast of Belize and quickly grew into Hurricane Keith. On Saturday morning, Sep. 30, it was a weak tropical depression, and by late in the same day it had become a Category 3 to 4 hurricane. It all happened so fast that there was little time to prepare and almost no time to evacuate from the cayes and coastal areas.
Biggest Impact on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker: Belize's most popular tourist destination, Ambergris Caye, and Belize's best known budget destination, Caye Caulker, got the brunt of the storm. Winds of 120 mph + pounded the islands for many hours. Water rose rapidly, especially on the back sides of the island and may have reached 5 feet or more in height on parts of the islands. One woman, a U.S. citizen and resident of San Pedro, Kay Smith, has been reported dead, apparently of drowning. She and her husband, Buddy Smith, who has been reported missing, were moving a 47-foot catamaran when the storm hit. Before relocating to Ambergris Caye about a year ago, the Smiths lived in the Bahamas and previously had lived in North Louisiana. A few other island residents are still missing or not yet accounted for, but to date no other deaths have been confirmed.
Ambergris Caye: This resort island, about half the size of Barbados, was hit worse than any other part of Belize. The storm was unusual in that much of the wind and flooding came from the west or lagoon side, rather than from the Caribbean Sea side. A number of buildings, including at least some hotels, lost roofs or other parts of their structures. The most serious damage appears to have been to small houses on the back (west) side of the island. Buildings with zinc or tile roofs in many cases had roof damage; those with concrete roofs generally made it through the storm without much damage. One of the hardest hit areas of the island was the section called San Pedrito on the lagoon side, where officials say an estimated 70% of homes were destroyed.
Some flooding occurred on the east or sea side of the island. A number of homes were damaged, mostly by winds which uprooted trees and ripped off roofs. Most hotels appear to have made it okay, although many report leaking or damaged roofs and some water damage. Among the hotel reports we have: Paradise Villas reports some roof and floor damage. Villas at Banyan Bay had moderate damage including loss of roof tiles. Management of Victoria House, which was closed for renovations in September, said the majority of hotel’s rooms “will be open within the next couple of weeks and the resort should be fully operational by the end of the month.” Two roofs were blown off the Victoria House casitas and the plantation room buildings but all will be repaired by the end of October, according to management. The restaurant, new pool and main hotel building were not damaged and will be the first area to re-open. Caribbean Villas reports some roof damage and roof tiles blown off and plans to reopen in about two weeks. Banana Beach and Mata Rocks reported only minimal damage. Changes in Latitudes reports that it will be closed for at least two weeks to repair damage to the upper floor. Ramon’s Village had considerable damage to its thatch cabañas. Gary Sagorka, owner of Tropica resort, reported, “Tropica has not sustained any structure damage to speak of with the exception of roof shingles only on a here and there basis. There was a minimal amount of water seepage into a few of the rooms that will require some new plaster board and painting.” The local manager of Tropica, however, lost his home and all possessions. Cayo Espanto, a luxury resort on a small island in the lagoon on the back side of Ambergris Caye, reportedly got significant flooding and damage.
On North Ambergris Caye, reports indicate that a number of private homes were damaged. Journey's End was flooded, Sundiver had damaged roofs and Mata Chica, which was closed for the month, sustained significant damage. Captain Morgan’s, the Essene Way, El Pescador and Capricorn had some damage, mostly to roofs, but are still standing. The beach on North Ambergris is “a mess” with a lot of debris.
Most hotels on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker are not accepting guests at this time and likely will remain closed for at least a few days, some up to a month or more.
Several dozen boats, including dive boats and water taxis, are thought to have been lost. Sara Vidrine, who with her husband operates a ferry service on the island, along with a restaurant, marina and other businesses, told a Belize television reporter: “We sustained incredible damage. The restaurant's gone, the bar's gone and the Boatyard's gone. The house needs to be totally redone.” Tropic Air, headquartered in San Pedro, reported that some of its smaller aircraft were damaged.
Supply boats have been going to San Pedro since at least Tuesday. Removal of debris on the streets and repairs to buildings have begun. The airstrip is open and flights from Belize City have resumed. The British army has erected a tent on the island and is assisting the Belize Defence Force and local police in maintaining order. Officials are urging that those without property or without other essential reasons to be on the island should not visit or stay on Ambergris Caye until power, water, telephones and other services are back in place. This could take up to two weeks or longer.
One human interest sidelight is that a production crew of several dozen people from Fox Television Network were on Ambergris Caye finishing the filming of a "reality-based" TV show, "Temptations," and were caught by the storm. Reports indicate that they all are okay. Some crew members now have been flown back to the U.S.
Caye Caulker: This low-lying island south of Ambergris Caye where many of the buildings are simple frame structures apparently had a number of roofs and even complete homes blown away. About 30 houses on the island, mostly on the back side, were destroyed, according to reliable reports. However, there have been no reports of deaths or serious injuries. Reports are that several hotels on Caulker have been damaged. At least one report indicated that fresh water and food was in short supply on Caulker. A supply boat from Belize City delivered 1,000 loaves of bread, which were quickly snapped up. Some restaurants, including the Yahoo Deli and Sand Box, are preparing and giving away food on a first-come, first-serve basis. Officials have urged those without property or other reason to be on Caye Caulker to go to the mainland until essential services have been put back in working order.
Belize City: Belize City experienced street flooding, in some areas up to two feet in depth, and some homes and businesses sustained roof or other damage. Karl Heusner hospital was “extensively damaged” according to Prime Minister Said Musa, but it remains open. An 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for Belize City was ordered starting Oct. 3. There have been some robberies and burglaries, but no looting or other problems have been reported. The international and municipal airports, temporarily closed due to flooding, have reopened. International airlines have resumed service to Belize, and Continental has put larger equipment on the route so that it can carry additional passengers.
Rest of Mainland Belize: There does not appear to have been much storm damage in other parts of the mainland. Winds apparently never got above 40 mph in southern Belize (Dangriga, Placencia, Punta Gorda), and there was no storm surge and apparently no serious damage to beaches or reef. In northern Belize, there was some rain but the feared storm surge in Corozal/Chetumal Bay did not happen. In Corozal Town, the power didn't even go out except in isolated areas. Residents of Corozal Town evacuated, but they soon returned to find no damage. Sarteneja got some wind and water but no serious problems are reported. Inland in Cayo and Orange Walk districts, rivers were high --the Macal was reported to be up to 20 feet above normal -- and there was moderate rain and some flooding, and some damage to agricultural crops, but the situation was nothing remotely like what happened in Honduras or Guatemala after Hurricane Mitch in 1998. The Western Highway was closed to most vehicles for a time but has now reopened. While not directly related to the hurricane, three Belizeans were killed after a Venus bus plunged into a rain-swollen creek near Mile 65 of the Northern Highway in an area known as Mamayel. After this week, after river levels fall and any flooding is over, visitors to any area of mainland Belize should experience few if any travel problems. Virtually all hotels and tourist facilities on the mainland are now, or soon will be, operating normally.
Remote Cayes: Reports from outlying islands and resorts including Lighthouse Reef, Turneffe, Spanish Bay and Caye Chapel all report that all on the islands are okay. So far, resorts on the islands are reporting only light to moderate damage.
Relief: Donations for Belize relief can be made through the American Red Cross.
BELIZE FIRST will issue a fuller report on the impact of Hurricane Keith in Belize after all the facts are clear.
One question that we're getting a lot is "We have a trip planned to Belize -- should we still plan on coming?" The best answer we can give at this point is: Stand by for more news, but things will get back to normal soon, indeed a lot sooner than you may think. Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker aren't going to be ready for visitors for several weeks, but most of the rest of the Belize, including Placencia, Hopkins, Cayo and PG, haven't had any damage to the tourism infrastructure and are fully ready for visitors. The worst thing you could do is cancel a trip based on rumor or an ill-informed, sensationalized newscast on CNN or other network. Tourism is vital for Belize, and it is hoped that visitors won't cancel vacation plans needlessly.
Editor & Publisher
BELIZE FIRST http://www.turq.com/belizefirst/