In late October of 1998 a hurricane formed off the coast of Panama and started heading north. The storm was named Mitch, and was following a normal course for that time of the year, and was expected to veer to the NW and possibly hit the northern Yucatan and maybe Cuba. However, when it reached a latitude approximately level with Belize and about 400 miles to the east, it suddenly stalled out and started to intensify. A high pressure system to its north had blocked its path, and it slowly started to move to the west, directly at Belize. Since it was moving so slowly and over very warm waters, it grew to a Category 5 hurricane in a few days, with wind gusts of 220 mph. A storm of this magnitude levels all structures, trees, etc, and is accompanied by huge amounts or rainfall. Things were looking very dire for Belize, if a Cat 5 storm ever hit the country it would be destroyed, taking decades to recover.
We at Slickrock were very nervous, of course, because we had just moved to Long Caye at Glovers Reef, and we knew a storm like this would wipe out the island, maybe permanently. We watched the hourly reports as they came in, reporting on the storms progress. Meanwhile the intense winds and the fact that the storm was moving so slowly created huge seas, which moved towards Belize and the surrounding areas. Every guest who had ever stayed with us, and every sister, brother, parent, and cousin we had called. As the days progressed the high pressure continued to push the storm off track, and as it slowly moved towards Belize it also took on a southerly track, which caused it to slam into Honduras before it hit Belize. When it came ashore in Honduras, it leveled some nearby islands, took out uncounted structures on the mainland, and dumped up to four feet of rain in the mountains which caused huge floods. Over 11,000 people were killed.
Meanwhile, the huge waves spawned by this storm devastated to outlying reaches of Belize, including the islands at Glovers Reef and the islands along the Barrier Reef. Several islands were erased, including a small island and house right next to Long Caye. The waves were up to 30’ high, and broke on the reef in front of our island. The outwash flowed right over the island, and although the palm trees survived, we lost 4 buildings, two docks, and some palapas to the water. Around 40’ of the front side of the island was washed away, and about 50’ of new sand and rubble was deposited on the lee side, so things were shifted around and we didn’t actually lose too much land area. However, the entire island was covered with debris that had washed up. We had to build a new kitchen and several cabins, repair docks and palapas, and clear the rubble and other debris off every square foot of the island. The whole process took three months. However, we were lucky we didn’t experience any significant winds, which would have leveled everything.
Such are the risks of inhabiting a small island in the Caribbean. We still have to sweat it out every fall during hurricane season, hoping another mega-storm like Mitch does not form up and take aim at Belize!