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Oct 31, 2000

1931 Hurricane myth disputed

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What do you know about the 1931 Hurricane? Probably not much except that it came without warning and caused massive destruction. Well if you’re one of those persons, what you’re about to see and hear might just shock you.

Ann-Marie Williams, Reporting

For almost seven decades we’ve heard from our ancestors and teachers that the 1931 Hurricane, which claimed over two thousand lives and ravaged Belize Town without warning. That tale, however, is being challenged by The Belize Historical Society. The organisation under the presidency of Emory King has published an archival piece entitled “The Hurricane of 1931″ which debunks that myth.

Emory King, President, Belize Historical Society

“Well, it’s absolutely incredible that the people who were in charge of the safety of the people of this country would have ignored continuous warnings for three days that a hurricane was coming. That the storm was coming, that ships were fleeing from the Caribbean and to ports and to just say… Well I don’t know what they said, but the result was that the authorities, the governor, the Colonial Secretary and the members of the executive council decided that they wouldn’t tell anybody about the hurricane, just go on with the parade for the Tenth of September and the school children’s’ outing and the friendly society march. The result was that two thousand people got killed.”

The two thousand people killed in the hurricane, property damage, along with the numerous warnings that the then Colonial Secretary Pillings ignored, were stated in a letter that Donald N. A. Fairweather, radio operator at the time, wrote to Pillings on September twenty-fourth, 1931.

King found the letter in the archives and decided to make it public knowledge two weeks before Hurricane Keith.

Emory King

“I found it in a book called “Cyclone” by Ernest E. Cain. Mr. Cain was the editor of the Belize Independent Newspaper and he was also an author along with Monrad Metskin. They published the handbook of British Honduras in 1925 and he had published his newspaper for many years prior to that. He was very, very, touched by the disaster and the loss of life by the hurricane and wrote this book. He compiled as much information about the hurricane and called the book “Cyclone.” He also has that official report from Fairweather to the Colonial Secretary two weeks after the storm was over documenting; virtually day by day, hour by hour, the report that they were getting from Washington and New Orleans from ships at sea warning that the storm was coming and will probably hit British Honduras and possibly Belize Town on Thursday the tenth of September.”

The article states that the first report of the storm was received on Tuesday morning, September eighth. It was reported as a tropical disturbance of moderate intensity, one hundred and fifty miles south of Kingston, Jamaica, moving west northwestward over the Caribbean Sea. When the ominous message came that three hurricanes would move across British Honduras near Belize early in the afternoon of September tenth, Fairweather had already posted several notices at the foot of the swing bridge. However, during a time of celebration and merrymaking, who would have time to pay attention to notices at the bridge? And what would be the motive for the authorities not to inform the masses of an impending hurricane?

Emory King

“Perhaps none of them had ever been in a hurricane and didn’t know exactly how bad it was going to be, couldn’t conceive of the destruction of this town and some of the out-lying cayes like St. George’s Caye. A number of very prominent families were utterly destroyed on St. George’s Caye and here in the city, two thousand people. Some entire sections of town like Queen Charlotte Town, wiped out almost to the last person, very, very few survivors. St. John’s College went down; Wesley College went down, Wesley Church, St. Mary’s Church on and on. It was a major disaster.”

It’s hoped that the article will help to clear the air about the age-old myth that the 1931 hurricane came without any warning.

Emory King

“For the past fifty years or more everybody said that the hurricane hit without any warning. We didn’t know it was coming. It mashed up the city and killed all those people because they didn’t name storms in those days. We didn’t have radar and there was no communication. I spoke to several professors of history here in the city who said “Oh yes, that’s right here was no warning.” Absolutely not. I spoke to politicians and civil servants “No, no. We didn’t have warning, we didn’t know.” Now these people were not alive at the time so they are only saying what people told them. What they hear from their parents and school teachers.”

And what they heard is simply not so! At least from the piece of history D.N.A. Fairweather documented. Ann-Marie Williams for News Five.

We’d just like to remind you that we’re still in the hurricane season; it doesn’t end until November thirtieth

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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2 Responses for “1931 Hurricane myth disputed”

  1. Steve Haylock says:

    Hi – I came across this article after visiting the Belize museum last week during my latest visit back home to Belize. I now live in the States and have lived here since leaving Belize (British Honduras) back in ’73. I was born in Belize City (Haylock Family – related to Alfred Haylock).

    I find the article very interesting because my Grandmother sat us down every year(sometimes three to four times a year) and told us the story of the 1931 and 1961 Hurricane (I was 1.5 months old and survived the 1961 hurricane (we lived on Far West Street).

    As far as warning – she told us that everyone was going to march that day and the parade was on. If there were any warnings, no one got the message or just did not pay attention, which may support mr. King’s view. I can remember 10th of September parade day when I was growing up and can tell you that all we cared about was the parade and partying, thus I can imagine folks back then just ignoring another “Front” that was coming in and more focused on the parade. Now I do remember my Grandmother telling me this fact. After the first storm came, the tide was low and exposed a lot stuff for folks to go and pick up and inspect out of curiosity. Unknown to them, this was a sign that a tidal wave was coming and the end result was the deaths of hundreds…lots of kids…very sad.

    Steve

  2. Linda Tully says:

    Hi
    I wa\s very interested in this article and in Steve’s post. My father Wallace Burns came to the UK as a 19 year old in 1941. He had brothers called Ernest and Arthur. – I never met my grandparents but remember writing to them in the 1950/60s. I think their last address was corner of Dean Street and Amara Avenue, earlier addresses included King Street and Far West Street.
    My dad told me he was on the beach the day of the tidal wave. He was 9 years old and described it as; “the sea disappeared and the fish flapped on the dry sea floor, and when the wave came back it was so big it licked the sky”. He took refuge in the church. He described how they couldn’t cope with the dead and resorted to pouring petrol over the bodies and burning them in the street. The heat from the flames made one body rise on its feet and skim across the water towards him. That must have been terrifying for a 9 year old. Unfortunately I’ve lost touch with the family, but would welcome any information.

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