Hurricane Keith Leaves Lingering Effects in Belize
Written by Stephanie Kriner, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org, and Olga Bellido de Luna, Special to DisasterRelief.org
It's been nearly a week since Hurricane Keith hovered for three days over Belize, but thousands living in villages scattered throughout the northeast portion of the country continue to feel the storm's effects. The 32 inches of rain Keith dumped on the tiny Central American nation left lingering problems.
Rivers that stretch from the country's interior to the Caribbean Sea are still cresting, forcing hundreds of families to evacuate their homes - perhaps for weeks.
Some residents fear that the flooding will remain for more than a month. They recall with horror what is known as the "Big Floods of 1982," when many of the areas that are now underwater were inundated for up to 40 days.
At its peak, Hurricane Keith was a powerful Category 4 storm with 135-mph winds. But, perhaps, its most devastating effects were caused by days of torrential rains, which flooded homes and cropland. In all, more than 100,000 people were affected by the disaster - 40 percent of the population. Some 3,279 homes were damaged or destroyed and more than 1,200 people were forced to evacuate.
Relief workers are rushing to get aid to some 15 villages isolated along the Belize River after Keith's torrential rains washed out bridges and dirt roads. At first, public buses tried to wade through the floodwaters to bring commuters to jobs in Belize City. But the journey proved too dangerous when one bus - unable to navigate through the waters - flipped, killing at least five people on board. The lack of safe transportation prevents many flood victims from commuting to work and keeps out trucks that distribute food to local grocery stores.
Making matters worse, the hurricane's torrential rains also left many people without clean drinking water or food. The floods contaminated wells and damaged 75 percent of the country crops - some $50 million worth - including October's corn harvest. Cooking gas supplies are running out and many villagers who can no longer boil well water are drinking rainwater that falls from the roofs of homes.
Nicholas Beizder, a 72-year-old farmer living in Bermuda Landings, a village located about 200 yards from the steadily rising Belize River, said that Keith destroyed his corn crop. But, he remains hopeful that the plantain, banana and rice crops will not spoil. "There's no food here in the stores. My wife and I plan to boil plantains until the flood waters are gone and food trucks can come again," he said.
The Red Cross, with help from the Peace Corps and two United States Army black hawk helicopters, delivered rice, corn, sugar, salt, cooking oil, toilet paper and medications to some 700 families in Bermuda Landings and other nearby isolated villages. The American Red Cross has contributed $28,500 and has sent 4,080 family hygeine kits to some 8,000 beneficiaries.
Meanwhile in the worst hit Ambergris Caye islands, where three hurricane-related deaths were reported, residents continue to clean up the debris strewn along the beaches and roads by Keith's strong winds. The town of San Pedro, over which Keith's eye passed twice, and the island of Caye Cauker received the most damages. Business owners are scrambling to prepare the hurricane-ravaged resort areas for the winter tourist season, which begins in November.
"It will affect us very badly because we had a lot of guests coming to the area, but we can do nothing about it because it's Mother Nature," said Colleen Gilette, information officer for the Belize Tourism Board. "We're going to do our best to get everything back on track."
Hurricane-force winds flattened homes, hotels and restaurants, overturned aircraft, battered fishing boats, washed away jetties and left the area's pristine beaches in disarray. The tourism board projects that it will take Pedro five weeks and Caye Caulker two months to repair the damages to hotels, piers, boats, airplanes, water and sewage systems, the electric power grid and telephone facilities. As a result, in addition to incurring some $100 million in damages, both areas also will miss out on much needed tourism revenue. Some business owners who rely on tourists for their livelihoods will suffer devastating income shortages.
In addition to Belize, Hurricane Keith wreaked havoc in Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala
But for a country that has struggled and rebuilt after countless hurricanes and floods in the past, such setbacks are a part of life. "The resilience of the people is remarkable," said Mark Espat, minister of tourism. "They have pulled together in this time of urgency. Tourism accounts for much of their livelihood and we will work night and day to ensure that these islands are ready for the tourism season."
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