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Oct 27, 1999

Belmopan remembers Hurricane Mitch

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This week just about everyone in Belize is thinking about where we were at this time last year when Hurricane Mitch appeared to be bearing down on us. If your survival instinct told you to leave everything behind and take your loved ones to Belmopan, you were in good company. What you may not know, however, is how the “occupation” of the capital affected its residents. Tonight News Five introduces you to some of the folks from this normally quiet small town who suddenly found themselves responsible for a city full of anxious strangers.

Elma Wade, Manager, Brodies Belmopan

“I couldn’t stand the amount of crowds that were in Belmopan; we weren’t used to it. There were so many people! I don’t known if I should say this on camera, but one thing that struck me was at that time, people were just throwing things around. The garbage was unbelievable.”

Janelle Chanona

“It seems like there were a lot of unbelievable things happening in Belmopan during the threat of Hurricane Mitch. Every house, empty lot and street were filled with people looking for safety… and everyone’s got a story to tell.”

One woman told me her landlord asked to use a room in the house he was renting to her. In his small three-bedroom house, Nick Badillo had all his family from Caye Caulker stay with him.

Nick Badillo

“By the time we got breakfast done for forty people, it was almost like lunchtime already. Then with the food scarcity, we had to catch lines at the bakery. We had to take four people so we could get enough bread for forty people.”

The owners of Chun Fu Bakery say the sudden increase of customers forced them to issue numbered tickets and run their ovens twenty-four hours a day. The bakery wasn’t the only place with lines. Vehicles extended for over a mile on both sides of the road trying to get fuel from Shell Gas Station. Manager Matt Hulse says people tried to use any container they could find, even water bottles, to store fuel.

Matt Hulse, Manager, Shell Gas Station

“After a while, not even containers, only vehicles could get the five gallons of gas.”

Q: “Were any of them upset?”

Matt Hulse

“Yeah, Definitely! Yes. We had to call the police. The police had to be there to help us in distributing the fuel.”

Brodies Store Manager Elma Wade says she also felt like she needed protection.

Elma Wade

“The crowds that were outside, I was scared for a time there because I really though they would get violent.”

With only a skeleton staff, Wade had planned to open the store only to get food for the shelters but with the crowd, she had to guard the door, letting a certain number of people in at a time. She admits things could have quickly gotten out of hand, which is why other businesses tried to simply say, “CLOSED.”

Johnny Chiang, Art Box Restaurant

“I just say, “Sorry, we’re closed.” Because in my mind, it was very dangerous outside. Everybody supposed to lock your door and protect everything; be safe, stay inside your house.”

Q: “And still they kept coming?”

Johnny Chiang

“Yeah, they still kept coming and that’s why I decided to open it.”

Janelle Chanona

“It was the perfect opportunity to make some extra cash and some people did. One family told me they managed a find an empty house but when the week was over, the rent was three thousand dollars. But most business owners say they didn’t have the heart to charge extra.”

John D’Silva, Bull Frog Hotel and Restaurant

“We did give discounts to people that had always used us. We didn’t raise the prices or anything like that. It was basically the same. We didn’t want to take advantage of anybody and we realized the seriousness of the situation.”

Despite the seriousness of the hurricane threat, many say they actually enjoyed doubling up and making fieldbeds in their living rooms.

Bernadette Skeen

“It was fun. I had fun. Because like I said, it was family who I hadn’t seen for a long time and then you talk all day, all night… catching up.”

In Hubert Enriquez’ house the children held a beauty pageant to take their minds off the storm… crowning Courtenay “Miss Mitch”. But while the residents and their houseguests did their best to pass the time, the Belmopan Hospital was gearing up for the worst.

Jesus Ken, District Medical Officer, Belmopan

“We were preparing for the storm, for how many days? Two, three days and it didn’t arrive and I think that is what extended the suffering because if you have a storm come, goes, you can deal with the contingencies, whatever happens. But it wasn’t like that this time.”

The hospital has met with the Ministry of Health and the directors of the K.H.M.H. to organize better action plans for next time. Medical officials were not the only ones to realize that if Mitch had hit Belize, things could have gotten ugly, fast. Brigadier General Earl Arthurs was inside the National Emergency Management Organization headquarters.

Earl Arthurs, Deputy Coordinator, NEMO

“The people in the shelters came there with the idea that the government was prepared to give them everything so they asked for food, medicine, pampers, baby formula, you won’t believe. I know you’ve been told people asked for condoms, and that’s true. People asked for condoms! We were in a crisis but apparently there were some people who were prepared to have fun.”

Ironically while so many from Belize City were camped out in Belmopan, one Belmopan resident went to the island of Guanaja, Honduras just before Mitch began knocking on Belize’s door. When hurricane hit Honduras, Guanaja was in the thick of it. For three days Daisy Tatum sat in the dark, cold and wet with nothing to eat. She hopes what she saw there would never happen to Belize.

Daisy Tatum

“When morning came, all we could see were trees. All we would see were the stumps of trees, no leaf, no bark, like you had taken a machete and chop it off. And when you listen, you hear the wind, sounding like a tidal wave or something like that… like a “vouoooo”. When you look, you see everything coming down, everything flying on the ground.”

Janelle Chanona

“A year after Mitch, Belizeans all over are counting their blessings and those who live in Belmopan are also a lot more aware of the vital role they played in protecting, and feeding, their friends, families, and even strangers. Let’s hope they don’t have to do it again anytime soon. Janelle Chanona for News Five.”

If you were a temporary resident of Belmopan last year, it would be nice if you called your former landlords to say, “thanks again.”

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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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