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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 06:03 GMT 07:03 UK
Belize surveys hurricane aftermath
Wrecked property in coastal town
About 13,000 people lost their homes
By the BBC's Karla Heusner

From coastal fishing villages to inland Maya communities consisting of thatched houses and small evangelical churches, to banana and shrimp farms, the scene is the same: extensive damage and pressing need for basic necessities.

The entire upper half of Belize - including the northern cayes so brutalised by Hurricane Keith last year - was completely spared by Hurricane Iris. But just the opposite is true of the south. It seems almost every village has been damaged in some way.


I am thankful to be alive, but this is so much worse than I imagined it would be

Placencia residen
Miraculously, however, the only deaths reported so far were aboard tourist dive boats which capsized. No fatalities have been reported in local communities. This, despite concern that many people - unused to hurricanes in this part of the country - had not heeded warnings and evacuated in time.

Since Sunday afternoon, Belizeans throughout the country were glued to their radios and watching the US weather stations to monitor the storm.

Now, the day after Iris hit hard and fast, they are listening to damage reports and getting relief supplies together.

Coastal damage

Iris did not come near Belize City as was first feared and even the southern towns of Dangriga and Punta Gorda escaped with minimal damage.

But Iris wrought havoc in smaller costal communities, most of which are comprised of wooden houses with zinc roofs built on stilts, or palm thatch with adobe walls.

The storm's eye passed closest to Monkey River Town. Although there was a mandatory evacuation, 75 people stayed to weather the storm.

Now the survivors and the evacuees are coming back to, as one woman put it, "nothing, nothing, nothing".

Flattened home in Big Creek, Belize
Local resident: "It's all mashed up"
Only two buildings remain upright in Monkey River. Everything else is matchsticks.

The story is little better in Independence, Big Creek and Placencia.

An estimated 95% of the small inns, restaurants, dive shops and bars in Placencia - a popular tourist destination known for its sandy beaches - was flattened by the 140 mph winds.

A woman identified only as Christine called a radio station on Monday night in despair.

"I am standing here looking at what used to be Placencia," she said. "Hardly anything is still standing, including my hotel. I am thankful to be alive, but this is so much worse than I imagined it would be."

Tourists killed

In the Big Creek, a port where Belize's bananas are shipped out, two dive boats with tourists capsized. The number of lives lost is still in dispute. The latest reports are 11 dead, 11 more missing.

Several other fishing boats and catamarans that were on their way to Honduras when the storm hit have not been heard from since Monday.

Bodies of divers lined up in bags
The tourists killed are believed to have been US citizens

While no casualties have been reported thus far in the southern district of Toledo, hundreds of families, predominately Mayas, have been left homeless in scattered villages.

The district's largest town, Punta Gorda, escaped with mainly downed power lines. But the surrounding communities, most of which have almost no cement buildings, have been levelled.

Little warning was given in Toledo, since initial projections were that the storm would hit somewhere between Belize City and Dangriga.

At the last minute the storm made a southerly turn giving the Toledo district a pounding.

The district was last hit by a hurricane in 1942.

To compound the problems of providing adequate warning, many residents speak mainly Spanish and there is only one Belizean radio station, broadcasting in English, which reaches this southernmost district.

Ill-prepared

Paul Mahung, of Punta Gorda, was worried before Iris hit land that his district might not be adequately prepared, that people might not be taking the warnings seriously or would wait until the last minute to move to higher ground.

Even then, higher ground often meant retreating to villages with only one or two concrete buildings.

A Mayan rights activist and community leader, Valentino Shal, says the people of Toledor are in desperate need of shelter.

Hurricane bends a tree
Local resident: "It was something out of a scary movie"
"Last night we had hundreds of people coming into the churches, with only the clothes on their backs, babies wrapped in plastic bags," she said.

"They had to stand shoulder to shoulder, they couldn't sleep last night.

"We don't know where they are going to sleep tonight."

In the community of Big Falls, 800 of the 1,000 residents lost their houses.

The story is duplicated throughout the district. Hundreds of those left homeless are children.

Cry for help

Villagers are making desperate appeals for water, food and basic necessities. Building supplies are urgently needed.

Mennonite farmers in Western Belize are already shipping supplies of rice, beans and corn.

Relief agencies in the United States and Mexico are sending supplies.

The Belize Red Cross and the government's Department of Human Development are also swinging into action.

In the long term, the southern district also face heavy crop losses since rice, beans and corn which were just about to be harvested, have been destroyed.

The Stann Creek district is where Belize's main banana and citrus farms are located.

The damage to these and Belize's burgeoning shrimp farming industry has not yet been tabulated.

In response to the disaster, those in the northern part of the country are donating supplies to their southern neighbours. In the north the mood is one of relief at escaping another storm, particularly following Hurricane Keith last year and a near miss by Mitch in 1998.

But in the south, the reality of loss is just setting in and it will only be lessened when the people find that help is on the way.

See also:

09 Oct 01 | Americas
Hurricane Iris kills 18
07 Oct 01 | Americas
Hurricane Iris threatens Caribbean
28 Sep 01 | Americas
Mexico's deadly hurricane eases
19 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
Decades of major hurricanes ahead
17 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Hurricanes set to grow fiercer
18 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Nature's lethal weapons
27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Belize
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