REPORT ON IMPACT OF HURRICANE KEITH ON BELIZE: November 16, 2000

Summary

Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker were hit hard by Hurricane Keith. Fortunately, loss of life was not great. Fewer than 5 people are known dead or are still missing. Scores of homes and some hotels were badly damaged on these two resort islands. Several hundred island residents are still homeless. Repairs are under way. Boat and air service between Belize City and Ambergris and Caulker have resumed. Power and cell phone service has been restored to parts of Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker. Most Ambergris Caye hotels expect to have roof and other repairs completed by December 1 or earlier, in time for the high season; it may take longer on Caulker. The islands began welcoming visitors again in early November. Hotel damage assessments, where available, are included in this report. The reef suffered no damage, so diving and snorkeling remain excellent. Remote cayes report no deaths or serious injuries and mostly light damage to facilities.

Mainland Belize had minimal impact from storm. However, flooding following the storm caused problems in low-lying areas along rivers and lagoons, especially in northern Belize. There was flooding in Belize City and on the Western and Northern highways. Some road surfaces were damaged by water. Crooked Tree had serious flooding. Flooding also took place along the Hondo and New rivers. The Blue Creek Mennonite community in Orange Walk District had severe flooding and expects losses of US$3 million. No mainland deaths were reported as a direct result of the storm, but a Venus bus accident on a flooded highway north of Belize City resulted in the death of three Belizeans. An Irish volunteer worker in Cayo was killed delivering hurricane supplies when he fell off a pick-up truck. Placencia, Punta Gorda, Cayo, the Mountain Pine Ridge, Orange Walk and Corozal had little if any damage and were back to normal within days. No serious damage was reported to any hotels or other tourist site or facility in these areas or in Belize City. Airports are open and international and domestic airlines are flying regular schedules. All roads are open. Visitors should experience few if any difficulties traveling in mainland Belize.

- Belize officials estimate damage from the storm will reach US$250 million. Tourist arrivals in Belize were down 30% in October due to the hurricane but are expected to rebound soon.

Details of the Storm

This is an update, as of November 16, 2000, on what happened in Belize due to Hurricane Keith.

Background: A tropical depression appeared suddenly September 29 off the coast of Belize and quickly grew into Hurricane Keith. On Saturday morning, Sep. 30, it was a weak tropical depression, and by late in the same day it had become a Category 3 hurricane. It all happened so fast that there was little time to prepare and almost no time to evacuate from the cayes and coastal areas.

Current Status: Power and telephones have been restored in nearly all areas of the mainland and on part of Ambergris Caye. However, communication with Caye Caulker and parts of North Ambergris Caye remains spotty. Hotels all over Belize are welcoming visitors. The best single source of information, on the Internet or anywhere, was www.AmbergrisCaye.com. The Webmaster, Marty Casado, was in Oregon and coordinated telephone, ham radio and e-mail messages from Belize and elsewhere about the storm, then posting them on his Web site. (A sad aspect of the hurricane situation is that an apparently mentally ill individual has been posting messages on the AmbergrisCaye.com and Belize by Naturalight sites falsely claiming that various hotels were destroyed and many people killed. This individual, who has plagued Belize bulletin boards in the past, also has e-mailed persons posting on the bulletin boards claiming to be raising funds for hurricane relief. Those who receive suspicious e-mail of this type should consider notifying the sender's Internet Service Provider and also, if appropriate, police authorities.)

Biggest Impact on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker: Belize's most popular tourist destination, Ambergris Caye, and Belize's best known budget destination, Caye Caulker, got the brunt of the storm. Winds of 120 mph + pounded the islands for many hours. Water rose rapidly, especially on the back sides of the island and may have reached 5 feet or more in height on parts of the islands. One woman, a U.S. citizen and resident of San Pedro, Kay Smith, has been reported dead, apparently of drowning, and the body of her husband, Buddy Smith, also has been found. They were moving a 47-foot catamaran when the storm hit. Before relocating to Ambergris Caye about a year ago, the Smiths lived in the Bahamas. Another body has been found in the water, and it is thought to be a crew member from the cat. Several other island residents are not yet accounted for, but to date no other deaths have been confirmed.

Ambergris Caye: This resort island, about half the size of Barbados, was hit worse than any other part of Belize. The storm was unusual in that much of the wind and flooding came from the west or lagoon side, rather than from the Caribbean Sea side. A number of buildings, including at least some hotels, lost roofs or other parts of their structures. The most serious damage appears to have been to small houses on the back (west) side of the island. Buildings with zinc or tile roofs in many cases had roof damage; those with concrete roofs generally made it through the storm without much damage. One of the hardest hit areas of the island was the section called San Pedrito on the lagoon side, where officials say an estimated 70% of homes were destroyed.

Some flooding also occurred on the east or sea side of the island. A number of homes were damaged, mostly by winds which uprooted trees and ripped off roofs. Most hotels appear to have made it okay, although many report leaking or damaged roofs and some water damage. Among the hotel reports we have: Paradise Villas reports some roof and floor damage but most units are operating. Next door, Paradise Resort Hotel, an older property with thatch construction, suffered significant damage. Mayan Princess and other concrete hotels in town had little damage. Elvi's Restaurant on Middle Street was seriously damaged and is closed; it may reopen in another location or rebuild.

South of town, the SunBreeze and Belizean Reef are in good shape. Ramon's Village had severe damage to its suites, heavy damage to the restaurant and bar and some damage to cabañs. It reopened most of the facility in mid-November. The Playador/Exotic Caye had a lot of damage including roofs blown away; reopening date is unknown. Villas at Banyan Bay had limited damage including loss of roof tiles. The Palms had little damage except for some roof tiles lost. Management of Victoria House, which was closed for renovations in September, said the majority of the hotel's rooms were expected to be open in early November Two roofs were blown off the Victoria House casitas and the plantation room buildings but all have been repaired. The restaurant, new pool and main hotel building were not damaged and will be the first area to re-open. Caribbean Villas reported some roof damage and roof tiles blown off but has made repairs and has reopened. Banana Beach and Mata Rocks reported only minimal damage. Changes in Latitudes was closed until late October to repair damage to the upper floor. The Hideaway had roof and water damage; owners say they don't know when they will reopen. Gary Sagorka, owner of Tropica resort, reported, "Tropica has not sustained any structure damage to speak of with the exception of roof shingles only on a here and there basis. There was a minimal amount of water seepage into a few of the rooms that will require some new plaster board and painting." The local manager of Tropica, however, lost his home and all possessions. Cayo Espanto, a luxury resort on a small island in the lagoon on the back side of Ambergris Caye, reportedly got significant flooding and damage but has now reopened. (Cayo Expanto was featured in a recent issue of a national travel magazine.) The budget favorite in San Pedro, Ruby's, got some flooding damage on the first floor but is back in business.

On North Ambergris Caye, reports indicate that a number of private homes were damaged. Journey's End was flooded, and Sundiver (formerly Caye Resort) had damaged roofs. Mata Chica sustained significant damage due to the thatch-style roofs. The owners report they plan to reopen Dec. 15. Captain Morgan's and the Essene Way reportedly had significant damage and still have no electricity, except for generators. Essene Way lost some of its solar panels. El Pescador and Capricorn had limited damage and will be open again in late November after power is restored. The beach on North Ambergris was reported as "a mess" with a lot of debris, though much of this has now been cleaned up. Electricity on parts of North Ambergris may not be fully restored until after the first of the New Year.

Most hotels on Ambergris Caye and on Caye Caulker are now accepting guests again. The Belize Tourist Board estimates that Ambergris Caye will be fully ready to accept visitors by (U.S.) Thanksgiving.

The reef appears to have been undamaged, and diving and snorkeling remain excellent.

Several dozen boats, including dive boats and water taxis, are thought to have been lost in the storm. Sari Vidrine, who with her husband operates a ferry service on the island, along with a restaurant, marina and other businesses, told a Belize television reporter: "We sustained incredible damage. The restaurant's gone, the bar's gone and the Boatyard's gone. The house needs to be totally redone." The ferry has now resumed operations. Tropic Air, based in San Pedro, reported that some of its smaller aircraft were damaged.

The island has plenty of food and water. Removal of debris on the streets and repairs to buildings are underway. The airstrip is open and flights from Belize City have resumed. Electricity, water and telephone services is back in most areas of the south part of the island.

One human interest sidelight is that a production crew of several dozen people from Fox Television were on Ambergris finishing the filming of a "reality-based" TV show, "Temptations," and were caught by the storm. Crew members are okay and have returned to the U.S.

Caye Caulker: This low-lying island south of Ambergris Caye where many of the buildings are simple frame structures had a number of roofs and even complete homes blown away. About 30 houses on the island, mostly on the back side, were destroyed, according to reliable reports. However, there were no deaths. Reports are that several hotels on Caulker were damaged. Tina's Bak Pak Hostel was seriously damaged and is closed. The BTB estimates that Caulker could be accepting visitors by Thanksgiving, and recent visitors to the island note that electricity is back on in most areas, though telephone service is still not reliable. Hotels are eagerly welcoming visitors. The main remaining evidences of the storm are the denuded coco palm trees.

Belize City: Belize City experienced street flooding, in some areas up to two feet in depth, and some homes and businesses sustained roof or other damage. Karl Heusner hospital was "extensively damaged" according to Prime Minister Said Musa, but it remains open. There were some robberies and burglaries, but no looting was reported. The international and municipal airports, temporarily closed due to flooding, have reopened. All curfews on the mainland have been lifted.

Rest of Mainland Belize: There was not much storm damage in other parts of the mainland. Winds apparently never got above 40 mph in southern Belize (Dangriga, Placencia, Punta Gorda), and there was no storm surge and no serious damage to beaches or reef. In northern Belize, there was some rain but the feared storm surge in Corozal/Chetumal Bay did not happen. In Corozal Town, the power didn't even go out except in isolated areas. Residents of Corozal Town evacuated, but they soon returned to find no damage. Sarteneja got some wind and water but no serious problems are reported. Inland in Cayo and Orange Walk districts, rivers were high -- the Macal was reported to be up to 20 feet above normal -- and there was rain and flooding, and millions of dollars of damage to sugar and other agricultural crops. Rains after the storm caused problems for small farmers in northern Belize. Reports are that hundreds of cattle and other livestock died due to flooding of pastures. The Western Highway was closed to most vehicles for a time but has now reopened. While not directly related to the hurricane, three Belizeans were killed after a Venus bus plunged into a rain-swollen creek near Mile 65 of the Northern Highway in an area known as Mamayel, and an Irish volunteer died in a road accident. Visitors to any area of mainland Belize should experience few if any travel problems. Virtually all hotels and tourist facilities on the mainland are now operating normally.

Remote Cayes: Reports from outlying islands and resorts including Lighthouse Reef, Turneffe, Spanish Bay and Caye Chapel all report that all on the islands are okay. Resorts on the islands reported only only light to moderate damage.

Relief: Donations for Belize relief can be made through the American Red Cross.

One question that we're getting a lot is "We have a trip planned to Belize -- should we still plan on coming?" The best answer we can give is: Things will get back to normal soon, indeed a lot sooner than you may think. Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker are now welcoming visitors, although some hotels on North Ambergris Caye are still without electricity and are still undergoing repairs. The rest of the Belize, including Placencia, Hopkins, Cayo and PG, haven't had any damage to the tourism infrastructure and are fully ready for visitors.

The worst thing you could do is cancel a trip based on rumor or an ill-informed, sensationalized newscast on television or half-baked Internet reports. Tourism is vital for Belize, and it is hoped that visitors won't cancel vacation plans needlessly.

Lan Sluder
Editor & Publisher

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