Reporter's Notebook: Hurricane Felix Stirs Memories in Belize

Here's a question for Trivial Pursuit players: Name the capital city of Belize.

If you answered "Belize City," you got it wrong. Belize City was the capital of this tiny Central American nation, until Hattie came along.

Hurricane Hattie, that is. It struck Belize City on Oct. 31, 1961 and destroyed three-quarters of the buildings here. The storm caused so much damage to this low-lying city that the government of Belize moved the capital inland and away from future danger. And so Belmopan was born. Belize's capital city has just 9,000 inhabitants.

Today in Belize City they are bracing for yet another assault as Hurricane Felix churns its way westward, but it looks like this time they'll escape the worst. The fearsome Category 5 storm has curved to the south and will be crossing over the remote swamps of eastern Honduras today, where it is expected to lose much of its bluster.

That is good news. It means Felix will be a much more moderate hurricane and maybe just a tropical storm when it hits La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula, two of the largest cities in Honduras. Its storm winds and rains should be fairly mild when they reach this far north.

But in these desperately poor countries, even a mild hurricane can be deadly. Shantytowns of tin-clad homes cling to the mountainsides outside the cities. A few inches of rain could unleash cataclysmic mudslides, washing the shacks and their inhabitants away. That is what happened in the area when Hurricane Fifi struck in 1974, and again in 1998 with Hurricane Mitch. The death toll in Mitch will never be known; it is estimated that 11,000 died, with an additional 10,000 missing and unaccounted for.

Here in Belize City you can see why they are so vulnerable. The city sits at sea level. Only a small concrete wall keeps high tide from flooding the streets. It wouldn't take much wind or waves or storm surge to upend this city just as Hattie did 46 years ago.

Of course, at least they'd have Belmopan, the obscure capital in the mountains of the jungle, a long way from the vulnerable coastline.

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