US Embassy personnel meet with US citizens

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 21            May 25, 2000

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At a luncheon meeting last Thursday, the message from the United States Embassy was firm in their recommendation of what to do in the event of a hurricane, "Get off the island quickly!" In attendance were Ambassador Carolyn Curiel, Deputy Chief of Missions Mary Witt, Consul David Chang, Ambergris Caye's US Wardens Wil Lala and Niesje Province and forty-plus US citizens.

    Based on information obtained, the Embassy evacuation to inland points of Belize is ordered if the Belize Meteorological Office (BMO) estimates that a Category II hurricane with sustained winds of 86 - 110mph is likely to strike Belize. Convoys assemble for evacuation in the city at the Peace Corps building parking lot at 2882 Coney Drive with an alternate of the Karl Heusner Hospital. Air evacuation location is the Phillip Goldson International Airport. Evacuation to the United States will be ordered if the storm is Category II or better with winds of 110mph likely to strike Belize City. As a general rule, evacuation to the US by commercial charter or military aircraft will be ordered once the BMO estimates the storm is that severe and that it will likely strike Belize City and/or close the airport within 48 hours. (According to the Belize Airport Authority, Maya Island and Tropic Air, airports will close based on a number of variables including wind speed over 40mph.)      

    It is important to remember, evacuation is strictly voluntary; no one can be forced to go. It was mentioned to be sure that you have sufficient US cash on hand and a valid passport in case evacuation is necessary. If you plan to go to the US, you have an option to book your flight with a commercial airline in advance or make reservations with the Embassy for chartered flights out. If you choose to take the US charter, Ambassador Curiel gave a "ball park" estimated cost of a chartered flight to the US as $600US for one-way flights to Houston or Miami, depending on weather situations. She informed those present that US citizens requesting the government charter would be given preference over others. When questioned about US citizens with Belizean spouses and/or families and whether they would be given preference on government chartered flights, the Ambassador replied that it would be on a first-come first-serve basis for all foreigners, only if there is room available after all US citizens are boarded. She further stated, "We guarantee the best efforts to get our citizens out of danger." This conversation brought up the subject of US citizens registering with the US Embassy. The Embassy representatives assured those attending they do not contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with this information. All information given to them is covered under the "Right to Privacy Act" and is not to be exchanged with ANY other government agency.

    A suggestion was made to include an e-mail address as well, to assist in mass communication. Whether a person is leaving or not, they should notify the Warden so friends and family can locate them. A further recommendation was that the Embassy contact the Weather Channel and CNN for warnings to Belizeans. The Ambassador agreed and encouraged anyone with evacuation ideas to contact the Embassy at 02-77161.

    One of the only other concerns dealt with animals. The Embassy stated they will not be evacuating any animals on their government chartered flight. Tropic Air confirmed they will provide transportation for animals to the mainland, but it would be up to the owners from there. Maya Island stated their policy regarding animals, as people first-animals last. Also mentioned was both Maya Island and Tropic Air have had negotiations with the Belize Government to allow them to fly throughout the night to International Airport for evacuation purposes.

    The procedures to be followed were outlined as the Consul will initiate notification of the private US community via the warden system. They in turn will notify US citizens by media, Internet, or other appropriate means to keep the community fully informed of the situation. The San Pedro Wardens urge those who have cellular phones or who do not have listed phone numbers to contact them in the near future. Niesje Province can be contacted at e-mail: windstar@btl.net or 026-2341; Dr. Wil Lala can be reached at email: c-v-hotel@btl.net or 026-2715. The Embassy has been instructed to confirm that answering machines at their base are operational and contain the correct forwarding information for US citizen inquiries if the Embassy is evacuated.

    According to the US Embassy's Hurricane Plan booklet, "in accordance with Department guidelines, information given to the private US citizen community must parallel both in timing and in content that being passed to the official community. Whenever a decision is made to draw down or evacuate Embassy personnel because of danger, this decision must be made public immediately and included in the country's travel advisory. The post must ensure that private US citizens have access to the same facilities to leave as Embassy personnel and dependents. (State 198403 dated 26 October, 1998)."



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