Well, Ambergris Caye dodged another disaster.
In 2017, two major hurricanes bypassed us for richer pickings in the rest of the Caribbean, coastal US, and Houston.
Last night, it was the threat of a tsunami, following an offshore 7.6 earthquake.
Dodging bullets, on a number of levels, seems to be becoming our way of life here in Belize.
There wasn’t much notice, or room to dodge, last night. Reports said a tsunami could hit our island of Ambergris Caye barely two hours after the earthquake. In the fine print, the waves were projected to be .3 to 3 feet above normal tide.
Not very exciting, except when you consider that the highest point on the island is a man-made bridge about 5-6 feet above sea level. Most of the island is flat to the water and many structures are built to the water’s edge or over the top of it. Three-foot waves (later projected to 5 feet) could make a mess.
Tsunami warnings — like the hurricanes — divide us into two peoples: those who live on the ground floor and those who live on the second and third stories of concrete buildings. Second-story peoples held tsunami-watch parties and invited their first-floor neighbors up for End-of-the-world drinks. Ground floor people walked up and down the beach looking for hints as to how disastrous this might become.
There is also the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef a few hundred yards offshore which is susceptible to wave damage. It is still recovering from Hurricane Earl from two years back. At great cost, the reef held back the worst of Earl, which still managed to wipe out or badly damage 80 percent of the east-facing piers on the island. Where there are natural cuts in the reef, waves came roaring in and three ground-level condos in our complex took direct hits, sending furniture, CDs, kitchenware and other household possessions flushing out the backdoors and into the courtyard.
So, the offshore earthquake definitely got our attention.
Except for my wife, Rose, still ailing from the effects of the flu. She slept through it. Imagine having to wake your spouse with the words, “Dear, I think you need to get up. We just had a major earthquake and a tsunami is expected momentarily.”
There is just no soft-pedaling that sort of thing.
The Belize emergency warning system went off and went bonkers. Police were riding their motorcycles up and down the streets with sirens blasting. TV Channel 12 was given over to NEMO (National Emergency Management Office) updates and messaging. Most prominent message: “Don’t panic, mon. Stay calm.” Oddly reassuring to me.
Facebook went even crazier with some people posting the latest info, some berating other people who didn’t seek higher ground (we have no “higher ground), or posting snarky comments about over-hyping the event. The snarks mostly came out after the danger passed.
I was a little disappointed in Moppit, who was more interested in a stray chicken bone she found among the beach chairs when we went out to check the post-quake conditions. I thought animals had a sixth sense and warned you of pending earthquakes by running around in circles, yelping in high-pitched voices and peeing all over the dining room floor.
A group of my neighbors did exactly what we weren’t supposed to do, which is walk to the edge of the shore and wait for the waves to come in. We drew a mark in the sand to detect the sudden withdrawal of the sea, signaling the voracious advance of a wall of water. It didn’t withdraw, although our imaginations did their best to will the water out into the murky night. The running lights of a few boats were seen in the black void, heading out through the Tres Cocos Cut to the safer sea beyond.
One neighbor helpfully pointed out that the highest point in our neighborhood was a nearly abandoned three-story hotel just up the road. It was built but never occupied for more than one week. It is helpfully named “The Hotel” in big black letters, painted across the front. It was supposed to be named The Hotel California but it became clear to everyone that not enough space had been allocated for C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A. So the owners went with the more generic name.
Anyhow, the hotel’s roof is accessible and a safe haven in a pinch, should there be a next time.
The whole thing was called off around 10 p.m. and the beach bars reopened to eek out a last drunken nickel from the tourists.
If nothing else, this morning we appreciate a little more how fragile is this 24-mile long spit of sand and mangroves. For three or four months a year we fret about hurricanes, and occasionally get hit. Then we grouse about the seemingly endless rainy season and the swarms of mosquitoes it brings. Now we find we are sitting astride a fault that is as big as the San Andreas.
It is enough to make ya move back to the States where you can experience the same level of stress and Starbucks and Costco stores, too.
Wait. No, it isn’t.