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Sep 27, 2001

No hurricanes so far, but are we ready?

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In mid-August when Tropical Storm Chantal came calling, the islands of Caye Caulker and San Pedro became ghost towns in a matter of hours and sheets of plywood were selling like hot cakes in Belize City and in the northern towns. But many Belizeans were still without a proper hurricane plan. One year after Hurricane Keith, are we prepared for another powerful storm? Jacqueline Woods reports.

Jacqueline Woods, Reporting

No one can forget the damage that hurricane Keith caused on October first, 2000. Keith hit Northern Belize with a vengeance causing millions of dollars in damage. The storm took most Belizeans by surprise as the system quickly developed into a major hurricane and battered Belize for two days.

Carlos Fuller, Chief Meteorologist

“We can predict storms and hurricanes, however, each of them presents a new difficulty which we thought we had solved with the one before. So Keith was an example of a hurricane that developed virtually overnight on us.”

Carlos Fuller, the Chief Meteorologist, says the progress of the storm was something they had never seen occur in the past one hundred and fifty years. Fuller says because the system was so close to land they had expected it to weaken. But hurricane Keith has proven that each new storm presents a challenge and as such, we have to be prepared for anything. But are we better prepared one year after hurricane Keith?

Carlos Fuller

“We are better prepared locally. Since that system, we had deployed some new observational systems around the country at Lighthouse Reef, Libertad, Caye Caulker and so on. So we had much more information with which to feed NEMO, relating to what was occurring in the country. That proved extremely vital during Chantal, where we could provide hourly reports of conditions in Tower Hill, Libertad, San Pedro, Caye Caulker and so on.”

When Tropical Storm Chantal threatened Belize, it was a much easier system to track, but it still caused substantial damage to the northern districts, when the storm hit over a month ago on August twentieth. Presently, the Caribbean is clear of any severe system. However, historically it’s this time of the year that the country is most at threat.

Carlos Fuller

“So we just ask the public to check in with the radio stations or TV stations once a day to see what is happening and maintain a vigilance. Have everything ready, know what your hurricane plan is. As I keep telling people, when a hurricane warning is issued that is not when to decide what you’re going to do, that’s when you start to act on what you had planned for before.”

In 1998 when hurricane Mitch affected Belize, we were not fully prepared for such an intense storm. After all, the last time a hurricane had affected Belize was Greta in 1978…that was twenty years ago and things had become complacent. Mitch was a wake up call and it prompted the government to put in place measures that would improve the country’s disaster preparedness. As a result, NEMO, The National Emergency Management Organisation was established to assist district committees in getting their respective areas prepared for any crisis.

Brig. Gen. (Ret’d) Earl Arthurs, Deputy Co-ordinator, NEMO

“Disaster preparedness as we see it, is everybody’s business, so we are decentralising the management system so that at the national level we will be able to co-ordinate districts. At the district level they co-ordinate villages. And at the village level they co-ordinate the families, individuals and businesses.”

NEMO conducts several training exercises just before the hurricane season.

Major Shelton Defour, Training Officer, NEMO

“It is not hard and fast, so we look at things like warning, opening of shelters, mobilisation of food and things like that. And in relation to Keith and Chantal, I would say that the plan was workable and it did produce the type of outcomes that we expected.

One thing I must say, is that the disaster committee for Red Cross has been producing high quality public awareness messages throughout this hurricane season. And I’m sure that this is one way we can get families to become more sensitised to being prepared for hurricanes.”

In 1999, the Interamerican Development Bank gave a grant of sixty-six million dollars to retrofit hurricane shelters and construct new ones. There are a total of three hundred and fifty shelters that need to be strengthened. So far, one hundred have been improved, but new shelters have yet to be built.

Earl Arthurs

“At this time there are over a hundred shelters that have been retrofitted, and there’s a special office set up, which was agreed by the Interamerican Development Bank and the Government of Belize. NEMO, contrary to what people believe, is not in the business of retrofitting shelters. This is done by the special committee with engineers and experts in that field.”

That special unit is the Hurricane Rehabilitation Office. It inspects shelters and award contracts for the buildings to be retrofitted.

Earl Arthurs

“NEMO’s responsibility is to take over these shelters when they are completed. When they are completed, if it’s not up to standard, or if there are complaints from the schools or the community centre, the people who are responsible for them, then we go back to this office for them to go and re-inspect it, to make sure they bring it up to the standard.”

But no matter how better prepared we are, we cannot control the strength of the storm. Certain districts are prone to sustain severe damage due to their geographical location.

Carlos Fuller

“Historically we know that Northern Belize gets hit five times more frequently than southern Belize. So we know that the northern half of the country is going to be the most prone for direct hits from hurricanes than southern Belize. So that part of the country needs to be better prepared than others. And so that is a geographic fact that we have noticed over the years and it is something that residents in northern Belize have to be prepared for.

In Belize City again, Belize City has a major challenge facing it because it is so flat and near the sea. So as a result we know we are very susceptible to storm surges, the high tide that comes with a hurricane. So we know with a category four, category five hurricane, we are going to get at least twenty feet of water in downtown Belize City. So we know in that situation we must evacuate Belize City.”

While most will agree that tropical storm Chantal was a time for us to test the plans of action, it lacked the intensity of a Mitch and Keith. For the rest of the hurricane season, keen attention will have to be devoted to tropical updates and preparedness. Reporting for News 5, Jacqueline Woods.

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