Hurricane Iris hits Belize; up to 20 feared dead as U.S.-chartered dive boat sinks
BIG CREEK, Belize (AP) – Flattening buildings and flinging boats ashore, Hurricane Iris tore through Belize and capsized a yacht carrying U.S. divers, killing 15 people and leaving five others missing and feared dead.
Twenty divers from the Richmond, Va., area and eight crew members were aboard the MV Wave Dancer when the year’s most powerful Atlantic storm hit southern Belize with 140 mph winds Monday night, said Patricia Rose, spokeswoman for the Miami-based Peter Hughes Diving, which coordinated the trip.
She said five crew members and three divers had been accounted for Tuesday morning. The boat was one of two 120-foot yachts that had been chartered by the Richmond Dive Club for a weeklong trip in Belize.
The Wave Dancer lay on its side in about 12 feet of water on Tuesday, just a few feet from shore. The night before, Iris’ storm surge temporarily raised the sea level by some 13 to 18 feet, pulling the boats with it and flooding nearby land.
Stunned passengers on the neighboring Belize Aggressor III watched Tuesday as the bodies of friends were pulled from the water. Helicopters roamed overhead, apparently looking for survivors.
”We’re hoping for survivors, but I don’t know that it’s likely,” Rose said in Miami. By midday, 15 bodies had been recovered, Belize police Detective David Williams said.
There were no immediate reports of other deaths caused by the storm, but Prime Minister Said Musa said in a radio broadcast that 900 people had been left homeless. That number was expected to rise, he said.
”Belize has greatly suffered once again, but we are a strong people, and working together with God’s guidance and the assistance of the international community, we will rebound from this devastation,” he said.
Iris lost power quickly as it moved inland, crossing Guatemala overnight and weakening to a tropical depression with winds below 40 mph. At midday, the remains of the storm had emerged into the Pacific Ocean, and there was a chance it could form again.
Early initial forecasts had projected Iris hitting Belize City, 80 miles to the north, and that city of 65,000 was evacuated by soldiers Monday.
Boat operators had docked the Wave Dancer alongside two other boats in Big Creek, a relatively protected site, hoping to shield it from the storm, said Lynn McNeal, co-owner of The Dive Shop in Richmond, who was in touch with the boat operators.
Williams said the Wave Dancer had been colliding with the Aggressor during the night and a tugboat, torn loose by the storm, blew into the Wave Dancer, somehow capsizing it.
McNeal said she understood the boats were tied to some submerged type of dock when a very large swell hit and snapped all the lines. ”When the ship came back down, I’m assuming it hit part of the dock,” she said.
By morning, the tug was stranded atop mangroves across the small bay from the Wave Dancer – apparently due to the storm surge.
In Richmond, dive club membership coordinator Jenny Chappell said she got word of the disaster at about 2 a.m. Tuesday, and began calling family members. ”We’re trying just to let them know and offering them our prayers,” she said.
In Independence, not far from Big Creek, grocery store owner Elizabeth Zabaneh said Iris leveled the soccer stadium and collapsed the only hotel in town.
”There’s so much damage here I can’t even begin to explain it,” said Zabaneh, who answered a ringing public telephone that had toppled into the street.
”There are telephone polls in the streets. Bananas that were in containers on the docks are everywhere, all crushed. Seventy percent of the buildings don’t have roofs. There are collapsed buildings and flattened cars.”
Zabaneh said nearly everyone in Independence fled to schools and other secure buildings before the storm struck.
”The first gust sounded like an explosion and that’s when the electricity went,” she said. ”From there we could hear buildings falling down. We got quite a battering for 45 minutes.”
Other badly hit towns included Placencia and Monkey River Town, as well as Poptun in neighboring Guatemala, 15 miles west of the Belize border.
”Between 50 and 60 percent of the houses lost their roofs,” said Erwin Guerra, spokesman for the Poptun Fire Department. ”Roads are blocked, there is no potable water and 90 percent of the electricity cables were destroyed.”
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