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A monster remembered: Hurricane Hattie, 59 years later 

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Posted: Saturday, October 31, 2020. 3:21 pm CST.

(Note: The following is a rewrite of a story first published on Thursday, October 31, 2019.) 

By Aaron Humes: Most monsters aren’t real, certainly not the ones in books or on television. 

But residents of Belize City in 1961 remember all too well the death and destruction visited on the Old Capital by a natural monster – Hurricane Hattie. 

In a year that has seen record spawning of tropical cyclones with billions of dollars recorded in damage, mostly in the western Caribbean and the Gulf coast, Belize has not been spared – Category One Hurricane Nana visited our shores in early September 2020, and there was a glancing blow later from Hurricane Gamma. 

In 1961 by contrast, according to the recollections of historian Lawrence Vernon for Amandala in 2018, the first hurricane appeared on July 20. There were no storms in August, and then ten spawned in September including seven major hurricanes. 

Nonetheless, Hattie struck on October thirty-first, 1961, slamming into the coast between Dangriga and Belize City. It killed more than 300 people and left much of the central coast in ruins. It caused US$60 million (US$370 million in today’s dollars) of damage, a greater infrastructural toll than the 1931 hurricane, which killed thousands more people. 

Survivors still recall the sight of floating dead bodies and debris. Belmopan was still nine years away (it would be completed in 1970) so much of the exodus was to San Ignacio and other points west. But the impetus for the inland capital city was established. Former Government Minister Hector Silva recollected on social media that from July of 1960, the Belize City Council resolved to ask Central Government to locate higher ground for the seat of government. Former Premier and later Prime Minister George Price took suggestions from the electorate, from Burrell Boom to Mullins River, the Pine Ridge to what is now La Democracia and Mahogany Heights, before ultimately settling on the current site of Belmopan between the Western and Hummingbird Highways adjacent to Roaring Creek. The city, now Belize’s administrative and diplomatic center, marked its 50th anniversary in August. 

Great Britain, the United States and Canada among others sent aid and the City was largely rebuilt by 1962. Also springing up was Hattieville, now 16 miles west of Belize City. It was formed as a tent camp for survivors of the hurricane and intended to be temporary, but eventually many more moved west and utilities began to be installed. 

The name was retired by the World Meteorological Organization, but memories remain, especially for the older generation. A formal monument was established in 2002 at the Lords’ Ridge Cemetery, blessed by then-Roman Catholic Bishop Dorrick Wright (now deceased), who lost his entire family while barely saving his own life by clinging on to a coconut tree in the raging waters. 

In 2002, Channel 5 News unveiled the first moving pictures of the aftermath of Hattie, taken in 8-millimeter film on November 1 by Canadian land surveyor Bill Wildman, living on Newtown Barracks behind the Pickwick Club. The footage shows a few familiar faces including Price, seen inspecting the ruins of the then-Belize City Hospital on Eve Street, which was evacuated before the storm. The station occasionally shows repeats of the footage on the anniversary of the storm. 

Hattie and the 1931 hurricane remain tied for strongest storms to hit Belize directly; Janet, in 1955, devastated much of Corozal and Orange Walk, but meteorological records show it made landfall in southern Quintana Roo, Mexico, in the vicinity of Chetumal. 

 

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