Ambergris Caye Survives-Alive and Well After Keith

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 37            October 9, 2000

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Heavy winds and storm surge battered the island
Some houses were severely damaged while others remained intact
Three men wade through storm surge seeking shelter
Sea grass and debris littered beach during the storm
Strong winds take their toll on the streets
Pescador Drive was impassable during the storm
Certain areas were devastated by Keith
Boats litter the old football field
Tree uprooted next to NEMO headquarters in Alijua building
More boats than vehicles were on this back street
View looking north from atop the Alijua building
    photo- View looking south from the Alijua building
British soldiers arrive on the island
Very welcomed relief supplies arrive
Island clean up began immediately
In spite of Kieth it's still Paradise

Never Fear - We're Still Here and We'll Be Ready for Tourist Season!!!  is the message the people of Ambergris Caye want the world to know. This tropical paradise is located about 36 miles off the coast of Belize in the Caribbean Sea or 17.92N/87.95W on the map. In another part of the world during the last week of September, a tropical depression was forming off the coast of Central America and nobody even remotely expected what affect it would have on this tiny island.

    After it was named, Tropical Storm Keith was expected to travel north through the Caribbean Sea, somewhat affecting the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, before heading into the Gulf of Mexico. As it reached warmer waters on Friday, Keith developed very quickly, literally before everyone's eyes.

    On Friday, September 29th, the weather was typical in San Pedro, tropically delightful. Although the circumstances were stated to be "not favorable for development" as reported by an evening call to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, Area Representative Patty Arceo called a 5 a.m. meeting for the next morning with San Pedro's Mayor Alberto Nuñez and National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) Operations Officer, Jim Janmohamed. In the meantime, conditions of the storm progressed at an alarming rate. Its winds had reached 74 miles per hour; making it a hurricane. Following a phone call with Central Government and an 8 a.m. meeting with San Pedro Town Council it was decided to skip the Phase I/Preliminary Alert, and go directly to Phase II/ Red 1, signaling a hurricane watch. This meant that hurricane conditions were possible in the next 36 hours. The community was alerted that the San Pedro Roman Catholic School would be their hurricane shelter and it would be opened at 3 p.m.

    At this point, Saturday, September 30th, a 9 a.m. meeting of the San Pedro NEMO Committee was called and by 10 a.m. Phase III/Red II hurricane warning flags were flying. Keith's winds were already 80mph and it was likely to strike within 24 hours. The National Weather Service in Miami made this report in the afternoon, "The eye of Hurricane Keith was located near latitude 18.0 north/longitude 86.8 west," or about 90 miles east of San Pedro. Little movement had been reported and all the officials expected a north/northwest drift on Sunday. Around 3 p.m. the Government Press Office informed that reports from the reconnaissance aircraft indicated that maximum sustained winds had increased to 100mph with 970 millibars of pressure; Keith was now a Class 2 hurricane within 75 miles of the island. Hurricane warnings were extended along the coast of Belize from Corozal south to Monkey River. People in low-lying areas were warned that storm surges could be 4-5 feet.

    No mandatory evacuation was called because of the hasty turn of events with the weather, but tourists were urged to leave the island. Boats were cautioned not to sail for the seas were too rough and planes had to cease flying by 2 p.m. Late in the afternoon a curfew was declared for 8 p.m. for safety reasons and liquor sales were ordered ceased by the government. To be more beneficial to the people of the islands in such peril, S.P. NEMO made a decision to station Area Representative Patty Arceo as Operations Officer on neighboring Caye Caulker because of her familiarity with the area and its people. Mr. Janmohamed remained on Ambergris Caye in constant communication with the Area Representative, and working together, they efficiently coordinated all emergency efforts. All NEMO committee members were assigned individual tasks and each of them, to this day, continue to carry them out tirelessly, unwavering in their commitment to serve the people of La Isla Bonita.

    By 6 p.m. Saturday afternoon, we were informed that the center had moved to 87.0 degrees west or about 60 miles from San Pedro. Winds were at 105 mph and waves were expected to reach 10 feet. With slight change in its coordinates, Keith became a Category 3 hurricane at approximately 9 p.m. that evening when 115 mph winds were recorded. Midnight found the hurricane at 18.1N/87.4W  40 miles east/northeast of San Pedro with 120 mph winds. Because of its slow movement, the greatest threat was from heavy rainfall and flooding which proved to be true on Sunday. By 3 o'clock Sunday morning, Keith had reached Class 4 hurricane status with 135mph winds. At 6 a.m., it was nearly on top of the island  within 35 miles, 18.2N/87.5W and San Pedro was experiencing surface winds of 55 - 73mph. It was further reported that by noon the same day, Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker were experiencing hurricane force winds with extended gusts of 120mph. At 1:45 p.m., Prime Minister of Belize, Hon. Said Musa addressed his people over the radio, assuring them that "operational committees and personnel are fully activated and on a high state of alert and preparedness to respond to Hurricane Keith." PM Musa ended his message by saying, "At this time our hearts and prayers are especially with the people in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Caye Caulker and Corozal÷we shall weather this storm as a united people."

    Suffice it to say, Keith did not go away for a very long time and it kept circling the island, up and down the east coast and coming around to the west as well, battering it from all sides. Likened to Hurricane Gilbert, this horrid, stationary mass of sinister weather traveled everywhere except where predicted. North, northwest, west, southwest, east, southeast; it seemed to never leave Ambergris Caye for very long that weekend. For the most part, Keith "wobbled and drifted" due east of San Pedro for quite a time before traveling south, at which point the eye was actually touching Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker at the same time. After that, it cut across the southern tip of Ambergris Caye before heading in its west-northwest trek to Mexico. Unlike the damage from Hurricane Mitch, Keith took its toll on the western, leeward side of the island. The people in smaller houses along the lagoon suffered the most, already in a low lying area. Boat owners who tied their precious cargo to the mangroves or stored them in dry dock, thinking it was safe harbor, were sorely disappointed when the brute force of Keith came "around to the back." Winds were enough to tear roofs off of strong buildings and make 30 foot boats fly like airplanes, (ironically, one ended up on the airstrip). Water rose in excess of five feet, depositing a multitude of debris everywhere imaginable. The houses that were totally lost numbered 51 in all, with countless others suffering minimal to extensive damage. Preliminary reports estimate roughly US$200 million worth of damage to the country of Belize. Although it was a Category 4 hurricane, the damage was not as devastating as it could have been, and was mainly contained to roofs, structures, property and landscaping. Caye Caulker has a similar amount of damage and challenges to its island. Yet, at the time of this writing, four days later, the wonderful results of the cleanup and repair are astounding in both places.

    Monday morning brought a calm to the island as people peeked out of their houses and tip-toed cautiously through the streets careening their heads back and forth, amazed at how much and how many had survived. The eastern beachfront of the island, where most of the resorts and businesses are located, fared the best. Most of the docks are intact and just the beaches needed cleaned from roof debris, sea grass and some falling palms. Tears of joy and pain intermingled in the embraces between friends greeting friends, family reuniting with family. It was like Hugfest 2000 in the streets. Only the news that the hurricane might possibly return, sent the people back to their homes, providing they had one. Most of the injuries appeared to be cuts, abrasions and puncture wounds. A truly small amount of human casualties have been confirmed (two so far), with a few more missing, yet even one life taken is sadly missed.

    Tuesday dawned a glorious sun-filled morning and almost immediately the clean up began. As promised, Captain Ortega has sent thirty men from the Belize Defense Force, Major Tower sent sixty of his British Forces, plus ten Dragon Unit men and extra policemen arrived, all to keep order, clean up and aid with the distribution of water, food and clothing rations. Theft and looting have been kept to a minimum with forces patrolling every area day and night. Criminals caught have been sent off the island. Additional help has been requested and is arriving already. The HMS Cardiff has recently docked with British Navy personnel to aid the community of Caye Caulker. The US government has assisted with a Chinook helicopter for the transport of large cargo.

    The general public is asked to be polite and respectful to these groups and all volunteers who are aiding in our community's crisis. They arrived quickly to provide a service to our people and should be appreciated for all of their invaluable contributions. Through this medium, NEMO sends its heartfelt appreciation out to them as well as the countless volunteers who are spending an infinite amount of sleepless hours working for the betterment of this community. Special mention must also be made of NEMO committee members:

    Almost every Ministry of Central Government has offered some type of relief effort, from barges of food to heavy equipment and medical supplies. Ministry of Works has assessed damages and is bringing in generators, zinc and plywood. The Ministry of Health has provided several doctors and is monitoring health problems. The same is true with donations coming in almost hourly from almost every district (numerous boats from NEMO Corozal, Belize City), from several private families and too many organizations in Belize to mention in this article. The Governor of Quintana Roo, representatives, several towns and the Embassy from Mexico have sent barges of water, long-life milk, biscuits and tins of food.

    Operations Officer Janmohamed assures the general population of Ambergris Caye that everything possible is being done to get this island back to some semblance of normalcy. NEMO headquarters will manage operations for as long as it takes. He asks that you exercise extreme patience when it comes to having utilities and understand that some areas have higher priorities than others for a variety of reasons. Water is available and should soon be in the impassable areas in the form of standing pipes for people to fill buckets until better repairs can be done. Electricity will commence in the town core to start up businesses and then work will continue into the outer areas. A large amount of manpower has arrived on the island to facilitate these utilities. Initially, gasoline will be rationed mainly for emergency vehicles and those transporting supplies to outlying areas in need. Temporary shelters for the homeless are being investigated, food is being distributed by wagon to various locations, and emergency medical treatment center was being provided in the entrance to the SunBreeze Hotel and has since moved to the San Pedro Health center.

    The bad news is that Keith became a hurricane again on Thursday in the Gulf of Mexico. Tropical storm watches and hurricane warnings were issued over most of the coast of Mexico. May they fare better than we did.

    All in all, San Pedro is doing it again - fortunately, what they do best - coming together in a crisis and proving to the world that you can't keep a good island down!
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