“I was awakened by wind and noise. When I looked out, I saw roofs blowing off the houses, zinc flying in the sky like leaves, whole trees flying like kites. It was loud. We couldn’t go anywhere. It was too dangerous.”
On October 31, 1961, category 5 hurricane “Hattie” made landfall on the central coast of Belize (then British Honduras), becoming the most deadly and devastating hurricane in the country’s recorded history. The storm and its aftermath would change the nation forever. There may be lessons to learn from hurricane Hattie survivors about endurance, resilience, and unity in the face of adversity.
Hurricane Survivor: Yola Robateau
Once you passed our house in Dangriga, there was nothing but bush and then the sea. Right before hurricane Hattie, a woman, Ms. VG, built a house in front of us and then that became the last house before the sea.
I was nine years old and my brother Joel was maybe 8 months old. Our parents were out of town and we had a nanny with us, Mrs. Coleman. We knew the hurricane was out there but it was headed away from us on that night before Halloween, so we went to sleep.
I remember Ms. Coleman asked Ms. VG across the yard, “If the hurricane turns around could you wake us up so we can go to the shelter?” And Ms. VG said she would. That’s the last we heard before we went to sleep.
I was awakened by wind and noise. When I looked out, I saw roofs blowing off the houses, zinc flying in the sky like leaves, whole trees flying like kites. It was loud. Everyone woke up. We couldn’t go anywhere. It was too dangerous.
Our roof started creaking and lifting just before the wind stopped. It was lifting and I thought it would blow off, too. But my father was a builder and he built our house with all posts in concrete and a solid foundation with reinforced roof.
Soon, some of the nearby houses started blowing apart. People began knocking on our doors and we started letting in our neighbors. We took in a lot of people, it was too hard to close the door on people in need.
The last time I looked out, I saw this big wave coming and coming, higher and closer and it broke on Ms. VG’s house—the one closest to the sea. And then it took the whole house! I saw the entire house floating out. I don’t know if she was in it but it was breaking up as it flowed in the current down to the jetty.
The wind stopped eventually, but the water wouldn’t recede for days. We couldn’t even go out. Chickens and ducks, all animals were drowned. It took two weeks for the water to go down. We continued to shelter people whose homes were blown away until they could find a safe place. That’s when new communities formed like Silk Grass and Hattieville. It was for survivors of hurricane Hattie with no place to go.
When the water receded just enough, I went out to look for food. I was on one of those streets going to Bluefield. There was a house on the corner there where there used to be a parrot that always talked. Before the storm I had a friend there so I went there first. I hadn’t got that close before I saw the body of a young girl, her eyes were all white in her head. I ran back home so fast, I did not go out looking for food again.
We shared food and ate drowned chicken and drowned ducks until the Red Cross come in and supplied food for us by the clinic right by the sea. I don’t remember being hungry.
When I was in line for breakfast at the Red Cross clinic, from there I could see men throwing bodies in big holes they dug. These trucks drove around and collected dead bodies and dumped them into two or three pits.
After a while, I stopped remembering things. Your mind just blocks certain things. But what I will always remember is that the people came together. There was no pushing, no shoving in the food lines, people shared. The family that stayed with us, they cooked and kept things together. We became closer.
Right now, as Belize faces times that could become hard again, people must remember our history and strength. We should come together instead of attacking each other. We depended on each other to survive then, in those days after the hurricane, just as we will now as we face a different kind of storm. Belizeans have seen other hard times and always find a way to recover and thrive. I survived Hattie; I know what Belizeans are capable of.