Swing bridge in Belize City, during Hurricane Hattie in 1961
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Swing bridge in Belize City, during Hurricane Hattie in 1961

Hurricane at Halloween

by Lawrence Vernon

Just as the residents of British Honduras[1] were starting to breathe a sigh of relief because the 1961 hurricane season would soon be ending, a powerful Category 5 hurricane named Hattie hit Central America on Halloween. The Atlantic hurricane season in 1961 officially began on June 15 and ended on October 31.[2]

Unlike the hurricane which devastated British Honduras in September of 1931 and killed over 2000 persons, eleven years previous to Hattie Atlantic tropical cyclones began to be given names; and three years later in 1953 were first given female names. Janet was therefore the first ‘female’ to hit the country in 1955 when it made landfall in the north. Hattie’s appearance in 1961 was the second female-named hurricane to make landfall in the country; and packing winds in excess of 150 miles per hour was unprecedented until hurricane Mitch in 1998.

The year 1961 saw various firsts both internationally and nationally. The United States saw its youngest President, John F. Kennedy, being inaugurated; and the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man to orbit the earth. Significantly the first ever weather satellite, Tiros 1, which would eventually help forecasters to track and interpret hurricanes, was launched in 1961. In British Honduras the first woman, Gwendolyn Lizarraga, ever to contest a national election won a seat in the Legislative Assembly; and the Battle of St. George’s Caye was branded as a myth by certain sectors. Considered mild in terms of landfalling hurricanes, that was the ‘climate’ which heralded the 1961 season.

Comparatively speaking Belize has traditionally been rarely hit by hurricanes due to its geographic location. This is borne out by the thirty year interval between the violent storms of 1931 and 1961. Although the 1961 season did not see a hurricane forming until July 20, and with no storms at all during August, the activity started in September when in that month and the following months there would be ten storms, eight hurricanes and seven major hurricanes.

Hattie was a rare powerful late season hurricane which formed in that fertile area of the Southwestern Caribbean where sea surface temperatures are warm and where upper level westerly winds that take shape in the Gulf of Mexico do not penetrate that far south. Hattie was first classified as a tropical system on October 27, and actually developed so quickly that it immediately became a tropical storm. By midnight it had reached hurricane intensity,[3] continuing northward through the western Caribbean and grew stronger on October 28 and 29, posing serious threats to Jamaica, Grand Cayman and western Cuba.

However, on October 29 a ridge to the north turned Hattie toward the northwest, sparing the Greater Antilles but then threatening Central America. Hattie moved into the Gulf of Honduras on October 30 as a Category 4 storm with winds of 132 mph. Curving then toward the west-southwest Hattie had attained winds of 160 mph and was located about 190 miles east of the border of Mexico and British Honduras. Hattie at that stage had reached the equivalence of a Category 5 hurricane[4] on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, and attained the record of being the strongest measured hurricane in the northwest Caribbean up to that time, until hurricane Mitch took that honor in 1998.

Tracking on a direct path to British Honduras Hattie hit the coast from midnight to 3 a.m. on Halloween, which was a Tuesday on October 31, 1961. With recorded winds of 160 mph and gusts of up to 200 mph, the storm surge reached 13-15 feet above tide level. Taking the first brunt of the storm was the Turneffe Islands, Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, followed by Belize City and the Stann Creek District.

Because officials at the Miami Weather Bureau had warned of the threat for high tides, high winds and heavy rainfall, residents in the capital Belize City, Stann Creek District and low-lying areas had been evacuated or moved to shelters. In the aftermath it was found that most of Belize City and Stann Creek was destroyed or severely damaged. Crop damage, including citrus which was estimated at $2 million, was inflicted on cacao, bananas, as well as losses to timber. It was estimated that the $60 million in property losses caused by Hattie in 1961, which accounted for about 75% of houses and business places, would translate to $370 million today. Fatalities numbered 262 with more than 100 in Belize City, and the comparatively low number in relation to 1931 was attributed to advanced warning.

On its way to British Honduras hurricane Hattie had passed over San Andres Island off the east coast of Nicaragua resulting in one death and 15 injuries. Other countries in Central America were affected by flash floods which caused 11 deaths in Guatemala and one in Honduras.

After the storm had passed there were thousands of survivors roaming the streets looking for food, clothing and shelter. Looting and pillaging incited some measure of violence in Belize City which caused a British frigate to land troops to assist the police.

From formation to dissipation Hattie lived for six days, being one of the shortest lasting storms on record. However, to those who lived through it and experienced the hardships and grief it engendered for many years, it lasted a lifetime. Hattie lost much of its power by the afternoon of October 31, and was downgraded to a tropical storm while over Guatemala. Continuing westward it crossed Central America, and on November 1 emerged in the western Pacific Ocean in the Gulf of Tehautepec. It spent half a day as a tropical depression in the Gulf before regaining sufficient strength to be renamed Tropical Storm Simone by the San Francisco Weather Bureau. Moving westward on November 2 Simone then made a turn to the north passing over Saline Cruz, Mexico.

Seemingly having a mind of its own, and again downgraded to a tropical depression it headed back toward the Gulf of Mexico over mountainous terrain which caused its winds to drop to 30 mph. Finding warm waters in the Bay of Campeche, on November 3 Simone, then only a depression, began to reorganize. By the following day the new storm reached tropical strength and was named Inga which became the last Atlantic storm of the 1961 season. Inga struggled to reach hurricane strength as it moved northward then southward off the Mexican coast in its last few days, but only able to garner 70 mph winds the killer that had been Hattie died for good on the morning of November 8. Pundits contend that Hattie-Simone-Inga was one storm that moved from Atlantic to Pacific and back to the Atlantic.

In keeping with the policy that the names of killer hurricanes be removed from the rotating list, the name Hattie was retired after 1961 and will never be used for an Atlantic Hurricane again. The name was replaced by Holly in 1965.

The damage that Hattie had wrought on Belize City was so severe that the government opted to build a new capital city located 50 miles inland on high ground and safe from tidal waves; and on its completion in 1970 the seat of government was moved to Belmopan. In 2011 the population of Belmopan is some 20,000, but Belize City still remains the country’s center of population with 75,000 people.

Two other communities were established as refugee camps after hurricane Hattie caused many persons to be homeless. Hattieville, with a present population of about 1,300, is located 17 miles from Belize City on the Western Highway; while Georgetown is located off the Southern Highway in the Stann Creek District accommodating those persons who were displaced along the coast after 1961. The mass migrations to North America of Belizeans that occurred in the 1960s following Hattie are often cited as being caused by the hurricane.

Those persons who ‘weathered’ Hattie will after half a century forever retain memories of that hurricane at Halloween in 1961. Today hurricane forecasting and tracking has greatly improved, and Belize can boast a National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) comprising efficient persons from the public and private sectors. Although vigilance will always be uppermost in the minds of Belizeans during the Atlantic Hurricane season, fears will be alleviated in the assurance that a well equipped meteorological and emergency organization machinery are in place.

[1] The name of the country was changed from British Honduras to Belize by approval of the National Assembly on June 1, 1973. This was seen as the conferring of dignity on the people by having their own name and identity as Belizeans.

[2] June 1 has been the traditional start of the Atlantic hurricane season for decades. However, the end date has been slowly shifted outward, from October 31 to November 15 until its current date of November 30.

[3] A storm with maximum sustained winds of 74 mph is classed as a hurricane.

[4] A Category 5 hurricane carries winds that surpass 156 mph.

Photograph courtesy Francisco Labriel

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