Hurricane Season

Hurricane Season in Belize lasts from the beginning of June to the end of November, with September and October being the months that the country is most likely to be pummelled by the elements (more hurricanes form at this time of the year, as the difference between the air and sea temperatures is greatest).  These summer months could also be called the Rainy Season, as that’s when most of it falls (even when there are no hurricanes).

A hurricane is a type of weather system (also known as a tropical cyclone), characterised by a low-pressure centre surrounded by numerous thunderstorms that produce strong winds and heavy rain.  They move in a circle around their eye (hence the name cyclone), and they’re more prevalent in the tropics (due to the warm seawater and moist air that fuels them).  And like the flushing toilet, they rotate in opposite directions depending in which hemisphere they’re in (anti-clockwise if they’re north of the equator).  In the Pacific they’re called typhoons, in the Atlantic they’re hurricanes (named after the Mayan storm god Huracan).

In Belize, a storm with a wind speed of up to 52 km/h is a tropical depression, storms with wind speeds from 53 – 102 km/h are called tropical storms, and a storm with wind speeds of over 102 km/h is a hurricane (thanks to Holger and Kerstin’s Belize blog for the info).  Large hurricanes can be hundreds of kilometres across, and can release energies of up to 200 exajoules (that’s a billion billion joules, or 1 followed by 18 zeros. It’s also more than the annual energy consumption of the entire human race, or the equivalent to exploding a nuclear bomb every minute. They’re powerful stuff).  They play an important part in stabilising the Earth’s atmosphere by moving warm weather away from the tropics towards the temperate areas.  But they can cause devastation on human populations (Hurricane Katrina killed 1,800 people and cost US$80 billion).  After forming at sea, they quickly lose their strength if they move over land (no longer having the warm sea as an energy source), but in the process they can be a real danger for populated coastal areas.

Hurricanes have played key – and often terrible – roles in Belizean history.  In 1931 (before hurricanes had names) an unnamed hurricane destroyed over two-thirds of the buildings in Belize City and killed over 2,000 people across the country in Belize’s worst natural disaster.  In 1955 Hurricane Janet levelled the northern town of Corozal.  And six years later Hurricane Hattie devastated the central coast, with 250 km/h winds and 4 m storm tides.  The destruction of Belize City for the second time in thirty years prompted the government to relocate the capital 80 kilometres inland to the planned city of Belmopan.  Hurricane Greta caused more than US$25 million in damages along the southern coast in 1978.  In 2000 Hurricane Keith’s approach prompted the evacuation of 10,000 people from the northern coast.  And in 2001 Hurricane Iris demolished over 3,000 homes.  The most recent hurricane to affect Belize was Hurricane Richard last October – it caused US$17 million of damage, and it was only a Category 2 hurricane (they go from Category 1 to Category 5, again based on wind speed).

Although wind and rain are the most dramatic signs, the biggest danger from a hurricane is after it’s passed – less than 10% of deaths are caused by the hurricane itself (eg, having your house fall down while you’re inside it); the majority of deaths are when people drown afterwards (by being swept out to sea or carried away in storm surges).  And the majority of financial damage is caused by flooding.

In the past hundred-odd years since records began, Belize has had 20 hurricanes and 31 tropical storms – that’s an average of one hurricane every five or six years, one tropical storm every three or four years, and one hurricane or tropical storm every two years.  So there’s a 50% chance that something big will happen.  And if it does, there’s a 75% chance it’ll happen in September or October.

On June 1st the evening news reports that it’s officially hurricane season, and sure enough, later that night it starts raining.  You could set your watch by it.  It’s the most violent storm I’ve yet witnessed in the country (the noise from the wind and rain wakes me up, and I can see the neighbours’ sturdy coconut trees bent over at 45° angles), but it’s not a hurricane.  In addition, the power goes out for a few hours (another unfortunate consequence of heavy storms), so the fan that’s permanently turned on at the foot of my bed stops working.  So, even if the weather itself hadn’t woken me, drowning in my own sweat and boiling in my own skin would have (I’ve woken up in the middle of the night during previous power cuts thinking that I was going to suffocate from the heat and humidity, and on one occasion I awoke in such a quantity of my own sweat it took me several minutes to accept that I hadn’t wet myself in the night!).

For the next five months the weather’s generally wet and windy.  I often wake in the night to the sound of the wind howling through the trees (with the neighbours’ dogs howling alongside) and the rain lashing down on the roof.  And if I sleep well and don’t wake until the morning, I often open my front door to a soggy garden and flooded streets.  The worst thing I have to cope with is the fact that I don’t have so many weekends away, as it’s often raining (or looks like it will rain), so it’s not exactly a nightmare scenario for me.  And on the plus side, all this rain does make everything grow – the lush forests (and their abundant wildlife) wouldn’t be here without it.

In late August things start to get a little more serious.  First, we have Tropical Storm Harvey – it never gets to hurricane status, but it does come through Belize with heavy rain and 95 km/h winds.  This is the point in my Belizean life that I realize that these things aren’t to be messed with – several people I know decide to pack up and head inland, and friends and colleagues advise me to secure my apartment as best as possible and buy some emergency provisions.  I respond by moving everything off the floor and purchasing tins of tuna, cans of baked beans and a bottle of rum.  Fortunately, my apartment is well-constructed (and, unlike many of the homes here, it’s made of concrete), so there’s no leaks through the roof or windows.  Unfortunately, it’s located in an area that’s near the coast, only slightly above sea level (if at all), prone to flooding, and criss-crossed by canals (canals which have crocodiles in them!).  And the apartment is on the ground floor (the only floor actually, it’s a 1-storey building), with its floor no more than half a metre above the ground.  So, the morning after the storm passes, I awake to find the lounge and kitchen covered in water – it’s not exactly flooded, but it’s enough for me to nearly break my neck as I slip bare-footed on the wet tiles.

The next tropical storm to reach us is Rina, in October.  It’s a tropical storm by the 23rd, and intensifies into a category 1 hurricane by the 24th.  The following day it’s a category 2, and is already on the verge of becoming a category 3.  And it’s heading due west, straight for us.  If this were to hit Belize, it would be bad – the worst hurricane in ten years.  According to all the predictions, it’ll start to move north on the night of the 25th.  Except it doesn’t, it keeps heading towards us.  As a result, the day of the 26th is one of constant checking of the National Hurricane Center website and talking with my colleagues about what might happen and what to do.  The government has issued a hurricane watch from Belize City north to the Mexican border and is evacuating the northern cayes as a precaution, and the approaching storm is all over the news.  I’m actually starting to feel a little nervous.  It’s not helped by the fact that the local news stations are re-playing coverage from last year’s Hurricane Richard, so on every Belizean channel there’s nothing but footage of battering winds, lashing rain, flying debris, and scared children (why don’t they just go for broke and show the movies Twister or The Perfect Storm?! [although Belizean news will have to go a long way before it’s at the level of American news – listening to the near-hysterical coverage of the impending Hurricane Irene in August, you’d have thought Godzilla was heading to New York City]).  Finally, I decide to stay in the city, so long as Rina stays category 2 or below (I can always stay with fellow expats Holger and Kerstin, who have a place nearby which is on the second floor of a 3-storey house).  And after work I do a proper shop for emergency rations – not just rum this time, but extra water, batteries, candles, tinned and dried food, the works.  I prepare an evacuation kit and move everything valuable, electrical or permeable off the floor.  Then I keep an eye on the news and wait for developments.

Rina finally changes direction during the night of the 26th – the predictions were right, but it was one (slightly nerve-wracking) day late.  It’s now moving north-west, just missing Belize and heading towards Mexico.  Although there’s still a possibility that it could do a surprise U-turn, which is what happened with the devastating Hurricane Hattie in 1961.  So I don’t fully relax and unpack my evacuation kit until the evening of the 27th, by which time it’s weakened to a tropical storm and is over Mexico, just scraping the Yucatan Peninsula and bringing nothing more damaging than wind and rain onto the tourists of Cancún and Playa del Carmen.  Rina dissipates completely on the 28th.  And all Belize gets in the end is a light shower.

But it pays to be ready – fail to prepare, prepare to fail; hope for the best, plan for the worst; and so on.  And needless to say, my British sang-froid and imperturbability prevailed at all times ;-).  But that’s as close as I’d like to get to being in a hurricane, and hopefully, with the season nearly over, it will be.

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