Mitch’s Fiery
Or, how some good people of guanaja faired honduras’ biggest hurricane on record

May 1st, 2007
by Don Pearly

[private] v5-5-Feature-Hurricane MitchThe Bayman Bay Hotel on the Bay Island of Guanaja in Honduras, Central America was filled to capacity with bored and cranky SCUBA divers after an entire week of troubled waters. Hurricane Mitch had sent an advance warning that she was coming, and the ocean was too turbulent for sport diving. The guests played games and watched diving videos from years past.

I was the General Manager of Bayman Bay Club and had experienced several nasty storms on Guanaja but this approaching storm was sending an advanced warning that was more powerful than any weather we had ever experienced.

When Saturday morning came and their departure eminent, the spirits among the troubled guests rose a bit, and as they literally jumped aboard the dive boats waiting to take them to the airport, everyone was somehow sad to leave. The surge was so great that the dive masters had to pick up the older female guests and wait for the dive boat to rise up enough to pitch them aboard to other waiting dive staff. A miss here could be disastrous as I personally found out when I fell between the dock and the moving dive boat. In shock, but still in control of my senses, I forced myself to open my eyes and headed underwater for the relative safety of the pier area. I admit I was scared like I have never been scared before. A watery grave is just not my favorite way to go out, I would much prefer to overdose on fried chicken wings when my time comes.

The guests were given the ride of their lives up the North shore and through the cut in the island to the airport. There they were picked up by the very last Aerolinea Sosa flight to leave Guanaja for some time to come.

With the responsibility of entertaining the guests over, Bayman Bay staff set about arranging things for the impending storm. All of the mattresses from the casitas were gathered together and put into one concrete apartment under my manager’s house for safekeeping. A shopping trip to Bonacca Town to gather all of the food stock they could gather at this late date was underway when word came that Mitch had made a turn to the North and everything looked better for Guanaja. What they did not know at that point was she did go north but then had second thoughts and stalled off of the Belize coast while she took her sweet time plotting her next move.

Late in the afternoon, two water taxis showed up bearing six new guests. They dumped them on the pier and headed back to the safety of the airport area. The wind was blowing, rain was coming down and the water was worse than ever. As they made their way up the hundred steps to the clubhouse, I met them and asked how in the heck they managed to come to the resort when airlines had shut down days prior because of the storms in the area. It seems they had been in Copan and came over using various local means and no one gave them a heads-up about anything. They had pre-paid for their Bayman stay and by goodness they were going to enjoy it no matter what. They insisted on their cabin keys and no matter how hard I tried to explain how rough it might get, they wanted their designated cabins and that was that.

Watching the surge pounding the piers, we decided to move the expensive dive gear and compressor equipment off of the main pier into the safety of the grand entrance building at the foot of the stairs. With that ugly task behind us we came back up the fifty-three feet to the clubhouse level and watched the ocean twisting and churning around our pier. With all concerned hands watching, the surge came up and under the planks and lifted the long poles right out of the sand leaving the structure intact, but floating on the water. An incredible sight only captured by the newsreel cameras.

Then they started separating and breaking up after being tossed about like corks. The last to go was the grand entrance that was recently blessed with the task of safeguarding the compressors. Everything was lost and our adventure had just begun.

As predicted, when the first roof blew off their cabin, the guests rushed back to the office for some help. We sequestered them in that concrete apartment we had previously loaded up with some forty-five mattresses. The room was wall-to-wall mattresses and no room for anything else. They were not happy campers but they were now indeed believers in the power of Mitch. They had not seen anything yet.

The two 35 foot dive boats along with the three 24 foot skiffs and one speedboat were taken to the cut and rammed at full speed into the mangroves. Once lodged there they were tied together and abandoned. Staff from the hotel made their way home to Savaghnna Bight, Bonacca Town and Mangrove Bight where the smart ones gathered their families and made their way back to the relative safety of Bayman Bay Club. Some 54 souls arrived and made themselves at home in another concrete room beneath the main dining room. They rigged up a makeshift kitchen and settled in eating like kings and preparing gourmet meals for the guests and management. We are proud to say, not one single meal was missed for the next week.

The staff had done all they could do and now they were on vacation. They chatted and played dominoes, ate and drank and dared Mitch to show its ugly face. The big generator was producing electricity and all was well at Bayman.

Mitch in the meantime was turning around deciding what to do next. Everyone had evacuated Ambergris Caye in Belize and was hiding with friends and family in the interior of the country. Mitch had made enough overtures to the islands of Belize. The majority of the inhabitants took the hint and went elsewhere.

After several false starts Mitch finally did a one eighty and headed south again, this time straight for Guanaja. Unheard of and unbelievable, but there she was bearing down on our little island. Winds clocked at 275 knots sustained were reported on the local radio station, more rain than ever imagined possible was packed in the black clouds as she steered a course right over Bayman Bay Club.

When she hit nothing was strong enough to handle her. Every roof either tore off completely or at least partially. A few cabins were de-roofed then left alone. Some cabins moved some fifty feet and settled in another location almost intact. Some of course were never ever seen again. In fact five entire cabins dissolved completely with maybe a toilet seat or a door found nearby.

The casita known lovingly as The Honeymoon Suite, lost her roof, but managed to keep hangers on the clothes racks in the closets and even left some envelopes sitting on the writing desk.

The Ex Governor of Arizona had just finished building an estate on the adjacent property and later, much later after Mitch left, you could see from the water where a tornado spun off of the hurricane and ripped a path up the beach, up the mountain and through the house only to continue a quarter of a mile up the mountain. It uncovered a fresh water spring that would later be dammed up and used for drinking and bathing.

Just the pillions and floor system, completely tiled were left of the Governor’s Mansion.
Neither he nor his family had seen the finished product and I was the one who had to give him the news. As a side note, the family elected to rebuild and rebuild they did, bigger and better than the first one.

For five days and nights Mitch took its best shot at Bayman and the surrounding areas. Roatan, a mere 35 miles away was left undamaged. Punta Gorda side had some action but nothing worse than the usual northers bring each year. The ship called the Phantom decided to leave Roatan for the supposed safety of Guanaja in spite of Bill Evans, the owner of Cocoview Resort’s advice. She was never seen again nor was her entire crew. Bits and pieces peppered Guanaja’s shores for months. Life vests, cabin doors, spiral staircases, the bow carving, a big wooden sign all came to rest on Guanaja and can be viewed in Savaghnna bight as they are used for decorations on some of the local houses.

v5-5-Feature-Hurricane MitchAt Bayman, the trip from one safe house to the kitchen area required passing some eight cabins and my Manager and I did the deed each and every mealtime. On some trips I recall going one way counting eight standing cabins and then counting only seven on the return trip just a few short minutes later. Entire solar panels with hot water heaters full of water sailed some fifty feet and took out the front wall of my house. Doors, windows and furniture were flying about as if being carried by pterodactyls that eventually dropped them like bombs. Nowhere was safe from flying debris. Two by four lumbers was sent through walls and kayaks scooted around the pathways looking for a launch spot. The wind was so strong they later discovered it blew the bark off of the pine trees further up the mountain. The pines withstood the wind force, but their skin gave up the fight. The wind carried saltwater to our level and above and when it was over not one single green leaf could be found. If it managed to hang onto its tree, it turned brown from the salt.

On one food run I had to interrupt the food service and quell a girl fight raging in the employee bunker. It seems earlier in the season, a boat driver fell in love with one of the sub-managers and when he brought his wife and three kids to the resort to ride out the storm it all came to a head. The boatman had a decision to make and declared he was no longer with his wife but he was now with the other girl and bottles and flashlights started flying. I physically stepped in and moments later regretted that decision. With a few new bumps and the help of some brave dive masters, we broke it up long enough to separate the contestants. It was decided the lady manager and her new boat-driving lover would be required to spend the rest of the hurricane outside, under another building. Now there is a honeymoon to remember.

On the bunker housing the guests and management, the metal door that opened outward just for hurricane reasons, had a long knotted rope attached to the inside doorknob. It was tied there so that four grown men could hold it slightly open while I slipped the antenna lid of a laptop satellite phone out into the weather. When it reached the end of its wire I was able to communicate with head office in ft Lauderdale Florida and receive the latest weather reports. Before each broadcast I would write a script containing names and phone numbers and I would then ask Florida to make calls to loved ones for the trapped guests. We were only on the air for exactly one minute in the morning, and one minute in the night at specific times in order to conserve the satellite phone battery that I knew could not expect to be charged in the near future.

One evening brought the news that CNN wanted to do a live interview with the captives. It was coordinated and orchestrated and went off without a hitch. Now the world knew where Guanaja was, not just a name they read on “T” shirts now and again. I tried to be casual but they told me later that my voice was about three octaves higher than usual. I thought I was quite cool considering.

And then, one morning, after some five days of hell, the metal door was pushed open to find zero wind, a light misty rain and a lot of darkness. The inhabitants of the safe room climbed their way over fallen trees and bits of cabin to join the others near the main clubhouse. Some 65 people hugged and kissed and thanked God for their survival.

Soon someone noticed their ears were blocked and swallowing un-corked them. It was as if they were climbing into the sky in an airplane or diving down into the ocean. We were experiencing some radical pressure changes.

Several of us gathered on a balcony outside of the dining room. I looked out into the misty morning and saw a familiar post sticking out of the water. I knew it well as it marked a coral head just before the point. As I looked at it it vanished. Moments later it re-appeared only to disappear again. What was going on, I thought as I pointed out the magic post to someone standing near me. Their theory was that there was a black wall as high as the eye could see. It was moving back and forth ever so slightly, but as it was the tail end of Hurricane Mitch it would soon zoom out of sight leaving us alone. I knew better, it was not the tail end, it was the stomach lining, we were dead bang in the middle of Mitch. We were in the eye of the hurricane.

While we stood there digesting what this meant to us, with some twenty witnesses, a shocking thing happened. A United States Coast Guard four engine airplane painted white and orange pierced the eye of the hurricane and flew past the resort. As I mentioned we were at 53 foot above sea level and we were looking down into the cockpit and for one split second I saw a clipboard strapped to the co-pilot’s right leg. I swear I did. This meant the plane was flying maybe 30 feet off of the choppy sea and doing some fancy maneuvering around the point.

One guest shouted to her husband that they have come for us and said they had best pack the bags. They had not come for anything, but measurements in the eye of the hurricane. Yes, Guanaja, Bayman Bay in particular would be playing host to the eye of Mitch for the next 39 hours.

With one eye on the weather and the great wall, we set about to light up the generator. One of the guests was fortunately a generator expert and with the help of our able staff they got it going in about three hours. Of course we had to follow the trail and put out little fires that sprung up all over the estate. There were bare wires, over protected circuits and eventually fires. But, with everything as wet as wet gets, no biggie. We had lights at Bayman Bay Club. Now that has to be some kind of a record. We had the comforts of modern electricity whilst huddled in the eye of a category five hurricane.

We were stylin’, but no one felt secure knowing Mitch would have to leave sooner or later and we would be cast into the other side of the damaging storm, probably the worst side of the storm from everything we had heard.

Now we could charge up the satellite phone and call to our hearts content. As another sideline, our bill ran some one thousand eight hundred dollars just for that one week. The owners tried to get some kind of forgiveness but nay, pay or lose your phone.

Two local radio stations called us and CNN called again as well. They put us on stand-by, but never called back to put us on the air. I guess the excitement was gone from our situation although we certainly did not feel that way.

As I mentioned, Mitch hung around for 39 hours keeping right exactly over Guanaja. Each time we received an up-dated weather report we noticed the winds were calming down. 175, 140, 125. The winds finally dropped to a mere 115 M.P.H. when she finally moved off. This was only tropical storm magnitude, and absolutely nothing to worry about after going through what all of us had gone through earlier.

She left us a lot faster than she came to us and after only two days we started seeing a helicopter dragging a huge cargo net beneath it. We went out of our main roof and painted our name in great big letters. When the chopper kept passing us by we went out and painted a black and white version of an American flag only later to find out she was a British Hilo moving water and food to Mangrove and Savaghnna Bights. I guess the American flag gave them a bit of a laugh.

After another day we re-established our VHF radio links and sent for a Sosa airlift. The same water taxis that brought the guests came back for them and in horrible undulating water stood offshore waiting for us to ferry the people out past the danger zones.

Four of our guests were in their 80’s and the two ladies had back and leg problems. Up jumped our trusty dive masters again and actually carried the ladies down the jagged cliffs, into the water and hoisted them into the taxis. Off they went to the airport with stories of the most different vacation ever dreamed of. As a final side note, the four guests returned to Bayman Bay Club in 2001 just to say hello and to thank us for our hospitality and good cooking. Their return visit was comped by head office

All in all it was an experience few people would want to live through more than one time, but would probably not miss that one time for anything. [/private]

Illustrations By Thomas Tomczyk

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