By Benjamin Flowers
Belize took a direct hit late Wednesday night into early Thursday morning from Hurricane Earl, the category one storm that caused tremendous physical destruction and economic loss but fortunately did not bring about any casualties.
After the storm, Prime Minister Dean Barrow held a press conference to discuss the preliminary findings of the post-storm damage assessment. Barrow, flanked by Deputy Prime Minister Patrick Faber and other ranking government officials, explained that while damage assessments are ongoing the storm caused more damage than GOB originally estimated it would, and those effects would be felt in the short and medium term.
Barrow explained that two of Belize’s main industries, Agriculture and Tourism, were severely impacted by the hurricane and called on representatives from those sectors to elaborate.
Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Jose Alpuche, gave a presentation explaining that preliminary estimates project over $100 million in losses to the sector.
Alpuche said that between the Orange Walk and Cayo districts, the agriculture sector will lose around $49 million in corn. The storm damaged almost 40,000 acres of corn crop in Cayo, and almost 25,000 acres in Orange Walk. Damages to bananas totaled around $45 million, and other vegetable crops took losses valued around $12 million.
Karen Bevans, Director of Tourism, explained that major tourist destinations sustained heavy damages, and will take a lot of time to rebound. Bevans said that San Pedro, Belize’s top tourism destination, lost 90 percent of the docks as well as all the businesses such as dive shops and restaurants along the beach. The Costa Maya pageant, usually held the first week in August, has also been cancelled. Caye Caulker suffered a similar fate. The storm also severely eroded the beaches on both islands.
The storm also damaged several archeological sites, which are key tourist attractions. At the preliminary stage, Altun Ha, Lamanai, and Caves Branch, are all closed due to wind and water damage, along with large amounts of debris. Authorities cannot reach Xunantunich or Caracol because water levels have not receded enough for them to safely proceed to those locations. Tourism sector officials are still in the process of quantifying how much money the industry will lose as a result of the storm.
Barrow said that while the government will offer relief aid to affected residents, such as food packages and assistance with fixing homes, Belize’s financial situation is not where it was in previous years because of the depletion of PetroCaribe funding. As a result the relief efforts will not be as robust as last year’ when residents were affected by flood.
Financial Secretary Joseph Waight explained that in light of the economic set back, the government is considering all options to make up for the loss, options which include increasing taxes such as the general Sales Tax (GST).
Hurricane Earl began as a tropical cyclone, which formed on Sunday, July 31 on the Caribbean Sea. By Tuesday, August 2 it became tropical storm, before forming into a category 1 hurricane just before making land fall. The storm made landfall north of Belize City, hitting areas like Vista del Mar, Ladyville, and Lord’s Bank.
When it hit, the storm blew off roofs, knocked down fences and ripped up powerlines in almost every area it affected. Preliminary estimates are that around 2,000 homes were either badly damaged or destroyed altogether, displacing many families. The storm slowly made its way west, raising water levels, making traveling impossible in some areas, before it regressed into a tropical storm and moved on.
Emergency authorities responded to over 100 Search and Rescue requests under extremely dangerous conditions in the middle of the hurricane. The United Nations Children’s Fund, conducted an assessment and determined that more than 110,000 were affected by Hurricane Earl; 27,000 of whom are under the age of five. In addition to the lack of clean water, these children are threatened by fallen power lines, debris, and wild animals, the organization said.
The National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) gave the ‘All Clear’ at around 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, at which time authorities immediately began mobilizing relief efforts.
The extensive damage to power lines, lamp posts and transformer poles, caused a nation wide blackout. As of Friday, Belize Electricity Limited had restored power to over 80 percent of the country, and 72 percent of Belize City, which was hit the hardest in terms of power line damage.
The preliminary data from the National Meteorological Service, showed that storm’s maximum wind speed was 74 miles per hour, with gusts maxing out at 104 miles per hour. The Met Office said that those wind speeds were recorded at Half Moon Caye. In Belize City the maximum winds were 63 mph with gusts of 80 mph. In Ladyville, where there was a lot of destruction, maximum winds were 47 mph with gusts of 73 mph.
Preliminary rainfall data showed that Belize City got 6.9 inches of rain, data from the collection site at the Philip Goldson International Port showed rainfall of four inches. The highest recorded rain fall thus far, was in Benque Veijo del Carmen, where there was 7.4 inches of rain.
“The destruction in Ladyville is not so much wind destruction but rather as a result of the storm surge that came in with the hurricane,” Dennis Gonguez, Chief Met Officer explained. “The storm surge in that was about four feet, six inches.”
Gonguez said that the Met Service still has more rainfall data to collect; however that would require traveling to the different areas, many of which were closed off due to the after effects of the storm. He expects that more comprehensive data on the storm will be available next week.
He added that though the destruction was bad, the wind and storm surge damage were expected for a category 1 storm. He said that one of the major concerns during the storm was the fact that residents did not heed repeated warnings to evacuate, and ended up calling for rescue services later on.
On its way to Belize, the storm caused six deaths and 12 injuries in the Dominican Republic. On Sunday the storm brought power lines down on a bus filled with people returning from a beach excursion near the town of Nagua in the northeastern part of the country. The lines sparked a deadly fire which caused the casualties and injuries.
The storm also flipped a lobster fishing boat off the Honduran coast, and 83 people were thrown overboard. Two of the passengers on the boat have still not been accounted for.