In the aftermath of tropical-storm-turned-hurricane, Harvey, hitting the US, the very talented Ms. Sharon Marin Lewis posted a question on her fb page, one that’s in the mind of all Belizeans who live on the coast. She wanted to know if Belize City should be evacuated in the eventuality of a Category 5 bearing down. I have a lot of thoughts here, many of which I have expressed before, in various forums. The hurricane season is just heating up, so it’s timely.
Like most kids who hate school, I fell in love with them when I saw how those bad bohgaz made those teachers scurry to close their doors. Of course, when I grew older, and saw how much hurricanes cost, much of the tune changed. But the fascination with their awesomeness remains. I don’t think I’d chase tornedos; I think those people are crazy. But I love storms. I hold on to a dream, to construct a rock house on an island, and weather one of the real bad ones out there.
I get bored sailing in fair winds. When the wind is up is when things get exciting; you have to be on your toes then. When I was a lad I loved being in storms, the little ones. One time I peeped out and saw one coming up. I went down to our sailing dory, and pushed out to sea. My idea was to sail a short distance out, to Little Long Cay, and beat it back to shore, just in time to get to safe ground. I think you call that, brinkmanship.
I didn’t make it. I would have, if the wind had allowed a tack directly for shore. But I couldn’t lay my bow on such a course. I remember my brother, Michael, swimming out to meet me. By the time he got to me I had already conceded defeat…taken the sails down and gotten into the water. That’s the way to survive bad weather in a sailing dory. I remember the wind lashing the mast and halliards and shrouds, and the waves washing over the dory as we held onto her gunnels and rode it out. It didn’t last long. Summer storms are like that. There’s a furious few minutes and then there’s a calm spell. And then the sun comes out and a gentle wind comes up to drive you safely home.
All wildness aside, like all Belizeans, I watch, and worry, about these monsters. My hurricane credentials are not too terrible. I hope a lot, I keep my nostrils wide, and I listen closely to the hurricane trackers.
I neva hapi when I learned that our NEMO had shut down the bus system, when all the hurricane trackers had TS Franklin heading north. The hurricane trackers are better today than they were in 1961. My eyes didn’t blink when TS Harvey formed because it was too close on the heels of TS Franklin. The sense of the hurricane trackers was that the best (worst) it could do in the Caribbean, was make a Cat 1 grade. Of course, a Cat 1 is no lee breeze.
If you ask me, Belize’s meteorologists are still stunned, shell-shocked over what happened with TS Arthur in 2008. Eric S. Blake from the National Hurricane Center wrote: “The genesis of Arthur occurred as the lower- to middle-level remnants of eastern Pacific tropical storm Alma combined with a tropical wave over the northwestern Caribbean Sea.” The genesis of that TS Arthur reads like the Perfect Storm off the coast of Nova Scotia. That storm joined with the remnants of Hurricane Grace to make a monster that reportedly produced a hundred-foot wave.
On the prediction side, it is the opinion of some that our experts weren’t on top of their game with TS Arthur. Maybe that’s because there weren’t/aren’t many storms like this one on record. There was so little experience to go on. Of course, what happened stung them. A worst-case scenario overwhelmed us.
The great tragedy about TS Arthur is that there were deaths. Many, many deaths that occur in bad storms can be prevented, but as storms go, TS Arthur wasn’t a particularly bad one. It was a regular storm that did some bad things. Who could have predicted those floods? For certain there was very little that could have been done to avert the massive physical damage caused by that wave of water.
Our experts have never explained the whole story about TS Arthur. We know that after it formed it tracked north, all the way up to Yucatan. So, where did all that water that rushed down the Maya Mountains range come from? Was it all TS Arthur? Did TS Alma drop rain on the mountains before it became Arthur?
Our meteorologists have all the answers to these questions. There is this to chew on, until dehn ready fu talk: Dr. Jeff Masters wrote this about TS Alma on May 29: “U.S. Satellite loops show that Alma has developed a large circulation that extends into the Western Caribbean, and rains from Alma will affect Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and western Cuba through Saturday. These areas can expect heavy downpours with rainfall totals of 3-6 inches through Saturday. Rainfall may be heavier, perhaps 5-10 inches, in Belize and along the north coast of Honduras.”.
On page 7 of his paper, Eric Blake showed that between May 27 and June 4, 2008, TS Alma and TS Arthur dumped 200 mm (8 inches) of rain on the Maya Mountains, 300 mm (12 inches) in most of the Belize and Stann Creek Districts, and 400 mm (16 inches) between the Sibun and North Stann Creek Rivers.
On the matter of the big storms, there’s a lot of data that Belize isn’t sharing. We have some exciting stories by people who survived. But there’s not enough hardcore data. The experts say that water is the major cause of loss of life in a hurricane. If I lived in Belize City or Dangriga, this would be the most important question for me: If a fifteen-foot tidal wave hits our shores, how high would it be 100 feet in, 200 feet in, 300 feet in. We absolutely need to know that.
The second question is about the wind. In 1961 most of my paternal grandfather’s family lived on West Canal Street, in a yard that had two wooden houses. Both houses had upper flats. Three or four blocks in, from the seashore, I don’t think my grandfather was worried about the tidal wave or any kind of flooding affecting the second floor of his houses. The story is that my grandfather knew that his house at #1 West Canal would stand. That house still stands, and it’s been there a long time, I think since the 1800’s.
Most of my grandfather’s family lived at #3 West Canal (the house at #1 West Canal was rented out), in a house my grandfather KNEW would not stand. That house rode out Hurricane Belize (I think that’s what the experts call the 1931 beast), but it suffered major structural damage at the foundation. The housing experts had inspected it and declared it not wind-worthy. My grandfather’s family was not at West Canal when Hattie brought it down.
Belize must fight with everything it has to preserve those mangrove islands that run along the coast. Those islands, and our reef system, significantly reduce the impact of hurricanes on shore. I remember Wallace Gordon telling me that he and a colleague were inside a lagoon at Turneffe when a hurricane (I think it was Greta) hit. He said they were under the mangroves and the wind was so light there they had to be fending off mosquitoes. A simple fan will ward off mosquitoes, you know.
The authorities in Houston said they didn’t order an evacuation (in response to Hurricane Harvey) because that could have led to people being trapped on the highways. Some of these hurricanes “blow up” very quickly. Mitch was one of those. Everyone can’t leave at the same time.
Hurricanes are definitely to be respected. The experts at “Global Warming” say that things will get worse; they say that the storms will become more intense, with stronger winds and more rain (flooding). There are experts in Belize who have more to tell, but they aren’t doing it. There are many, many models in the Caribbean to draw from. There is expertise that can tell you so many feet in must evacuate in a Cat 1…to…so many feet in must evacuate in a Cat 5. There is expertise that can tell you what houses will fall, what houses are iffy, and what houses are fortresses, houses upon the rocks.
We have to think about approaches to prepare, so we can mitigate damage. Mangroves and reefs are God- made. There are man-made structures that can help. There are things we can do at ground level to minimize the damages. I heard someone from the Yabra area say that things got considerably worse for him during Hurricane Earl when a boat washed ashore and smashed his house. There is a way to build roofs to minimize wind damage. Everything that can become a missile has to be strapped down.
Belizean experts have a lot more information to share with us, far beyond the ‘pack your flash light and bread.’ Okay, I apologize for that last. But they really can step it up. People on the coast should know beforehand — who has to leave, and who can stay.