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January 1999 Vol. 14, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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What's Left After Mitch?

reports on Honduras, Belize, Cayman, and Cozumel

from the January, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

As everyone now knows, Hurricane Mitch, a category 5 storm that ranked among the strongest hurricanes on record, wreaked havoc in Honduras and left its mark elsewhere in the Caribbean. The storm left an estimated 7,000 dead and 11,000 missing in Honduras, and the Bay Islands took the first and hardest hit. Mitch sat atop Guanaja and battered the island with 180 mph winds, but most of the island’s residents survived by fleeing to a protected canyon that spans the island. Their homes fared less well, with some initial estimates reporting 75 percent of the structures destroyed. Bonacco Town, built entirely on stilts over the water, is nearly gone. Little is open currently on Guanaja, but, while docks and on-water buildings were devastated, damage to resorts was less severe than might have been expected.

Other Bay Islands were less severely impacted, and most live-aboards in the area are up and running. Resorts on Utila reported beach erosion and damage to docks, and Cayos Cochinos had moderate damage. Roatán’s damage was minimal, and most resorts there are operational. We’ve heard that the shallow water dives suffered most and that there was some coral breakage, although visibility seems to have bounced back to around 80’. A few resorts on the north side are claiming 150’ visibility and bigger fish than they were seeing prior to the storm. While I don’t have first-hand knowledge of Roatán’s post-hurricane reef condition, I did drop in on Cozumel just two days after Gilbert scoured the island in 1988, and, oddly enough, I found that there were more big fish on the reef than before the storm.

Mitch trapped a lot of divers on Roatán who were unable to evacuate. According to Terry Evans of Roatán Charter, despite pleasant weather preceding the storm, the Honduran government banned commercial flights into Roatán. They promised to send in military aircraft to evacuate tourists, but these planes never arrived. Resorts were forced to hunker down or relocate their guests to hotels on higher ground. Fortunately, the storm spared them. In fact, The Inn of Last Resort reported its most serious damage came from locking the monkeys in the bathroom overnight, and the 44 guests who rode out Mitch at Bay Island Beach Resort decided that their biggest “category 5 problem” came when the beer started running low. Several resorts sang their guests’ praises, even mentioning a dedicated few who went home, then flew back to help rebuild. CoCo View filmed the premises and interviewed its hurricane veterans the week after the storm; copies are available from Roatán Charter at 800-282-8932 or at

Most of the problems of Mitch’s aftermath seemed to be confined to mainland Honduras. The U.S. State Department cites potable water as being in short supply in much of the country, and an increase in the disease-carrying insect population is expected. It notes, however, that essential services have been restored in the Bay Islands, and most tourist resorts have resumed full operation.

Belize’s hit was nothing like Honduras, although many docks were washed out on Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. Preparation was arduous nonetheless, although most resorts were able to evacuate their guests. People at St. George’s Caye had vivid memories of the last hurricane, when crabs began to frantically climb the palms to escape the sea and the docks just disappeared into the waves. They decided to sink “all the skiffs but one, reasoning that their only hope of future salvage was to get them underwater.” Amigos del Mar reports that Blue Hole and the atolls are fine although reefs on Ambergris sustained some damage, with some corals broken and some sponges and fans destroyed. But although actual damage from the storm appears to be minimal, Belize still seems to be feeling the hit in that some travelers are avoiding the area. Business is down, and there may be bargains available.

As for other destinations, Cayman’s main storm surge damage was to the south coast and west end at northwest point, although the north side and east end weren’t harmed. Cayman Diving Lodge lost its dock, and most docks on the south coast sustained damage. Reader Barry Jacobs returned from Cozumel in early November and reported a lot of “Mitch-related crap in the water.” Visibility there was down to 60 feet on some dives, not more than 100 on most others. Generally, however, despite the terrible toll on residents, most resorts seem to be getting back on their feet.

— J.Q.

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