One of the most vivid childhood memories that still lingers in my mind, is growing up with my grandmother and listening to her survivor story of Hurricane Janet which occurred on September 27, 1955.
Upon finding out that I needed to research on a local event in my community for my oral history research paper there was no doubt that I wanted to find out as much as possible on Hurricane Janet that devastated my home town, Corozal Town and the surrounding villages.
This would be an opportunity for me to preserve my now 90 year old grandmother’s testimony as part of the history of Corozal Town.
My desire to research on Hurricane Janet became greater when I went to the only town library and found out that they had very limited information on this event. All they had was a one page print of the date, time, path and intensity of the hurricane.
Listening to my grandmother memoir and knowing how vast the devastation was instilling suffering to my own family and that in the history books this event seems meaningless and knowing how much good the aftermath brought to Corozal even after so much destruction convinces me that I need to put Hurricane Janet being part of my heritage this event on record.
This research I am sure, will contribute to the written history of my town, will provide the information necessary to the Corozal Town Library and will be part of our community website Corozal.com.
This part of the district had a great Cohune Nut Palms forest which is Corozo in Spanish.
When the refugees settled in this area they named it Corozal after Corozo, the Cohune Nut Palm.
They also use the Corozo as we use the coconut today, for its fleshy meat, oil and palms.
The surrounding lands were inhabited long before Corozal Town itself was settled. We have Maya archeological sites that are evidence that the Mayas were the first inhabitants of Corozal and the country of Belize as a whole.
We know that migration started in the 1840s. In 1848 the City of Bacalar sitated on a lagoon about 20 miles from Corozal was captured for the first time by the Santa Cruz Maya, they were vicious and came in large numbers. They resented their conquerers the Spanish, but had less resentment to the English in Belize. The inhabitants of Bacalar started to flee from these Mayas settled in the northernmost district of Belize.
Bacalar was attacked for a second time in 1849. This revolt turned out to be what is called “Guerra de Las Castas” (Caste War). Numerous crowds fled
escaping from Bacalar by crossing the Bacalar Lagoon in canoes and rafts.
Taking refuge in Belize these Mestizos (mixture of Spanish and Maya) made Corozal their home.
There were many attempts by the Maya to attack Corozal Town. This was the reason for the erection of the Fort Barlee built by the Magistrate and guarded by soldiers of Jamaica and had been sent to Belize.
The forts stand at the four corners of the center of Corozal Town today, surrounding the government building and the police station.
Mr. James Blake, then owner of Corozal encourage the Bacalar refugees to settle on the land. At that time the land was divided into two estates, Pembroke Hall Estate and the Goschen Estate. The Goshen Estate was bought by Mr. John Carmicheal with a loan gotten from Mr. Thomas Schofield. Unable to pay back the loan, Mr. Thomas Schofield took over the land. Parcels of the land were rented to the settlers.
Corozal Town, the northern most town of British Honduras (now Belize) was a unique but small town. There were only two main streets running north to south and about two or three other streets running parallel to these main streets. These streets were covered with white marl. Very dusty during the dry season and muddy in the rainy season.The sea was about two blocks away from the two main streets. There was no physically built sea wall which made it more susceptible to erosion and flooding.
Dr. Walters in his recorded interview with the British Honduran Newspaper gives us a description of the town. He states that the center of the town’s focus point was the Plaza. Along the plaza was the Town Hall, The Saint Francis Xavier Church and the school and the town’s hospital. The Pallotine’s Sisters' Convent was also in that vicinity. To the south east of the plaza was the busy area occupied by the Court House, Prison, Police Station. This area is now 4th Avenue, the area where Lydia’s Gift Shop and Kiddie Kinder Pre-School are now erected. “La Bodega” supermarket owned by Mr. William Gegg was the largest grocery store and it was located in the same center of the town.
The inhabitants of this part of the town were the rich landowners, businessmen and government workers such as doctors, magistrates etc. The houses conveyed mostly wooden colonial architecture and a few newly built concrete buildings.
The Barrio and Bacadia were north and south sides of the town respectively. These were the neighbourhoods where the working- middle class lived. The houses in these areas were mostly pimenta structures plastered with white lime and thatched roofs. These areas where were most of the people lived. My grandmother reminisces that almost everybody from El Barrio knew everybody from La Bacadia.
Beyond the boundaries of the town, both to the north and south were the milpas and parajes (farms) where the people grew there crops for local consumption. The areas further north and south of the milpas ans parajes were the sugar cane fields that supplied Pembroke Hall Sugar Factory and San Roque’s and Aventura’s Sugar Mills..
From an excerpt gotten from the Corozal Town Library, it is claimed that a warning for Hurricane Janet came on September 22, 1955. It informed the people that the hurricane was 350 miles east south east of Martinique.
On September 27, 1955 at 7:19 am the Miami Weather Bureau warned Belize. The British Honduras Broadcasting Station took it upon itself to broadcast the forecast on the projected path of the hurricane and the precautionary measures that should have been taken immediately. The BHBS started updating the people at every half-hourly intervals.
In the interview with my grandmother, she mentions that most of the town’s inhabitants did not know of the approaching storm since many did not own a radio. She explains that she only found out about the approaching storm from a newspaper brought to her by her husband. He had been to the neighbouring Mexican town of Payo Obispo (now Chetumal) where he went sell his merchandise and was back home that evening bringing with him as usual the Mexican newspapers. My grandmother explains that she immediately shared the news with her neighbours.
According to an interview from Dr. and Mrs. Walters done by the British Honduras Broadcasting Station and published by the British Honduran Newspaper, No. 10, October 1955, Dr. Walters the town’s doctor mentions that he had been listening to the warnings on the radio but there was much interference in the radio’s wave that it was difficult to staying in tune.
In another article entitled Report from the North No. 3 in the British Honduran Newspaper, Reverend Henry Sutti, S.J., mentions that during a novena to Saint Terese he warned all the congregation of the hurricane that was imminent.
Sadly to mention is that even though many were warned, many never got the news and barely any preparations were made. Apart from not taking precautionary measures the infrastructure of the town was not adequate to withstand a hurricane with such a magnitude.
Reverend Sutti further mentions that when they felt it was safe to go out after the storm, Father Pick took his radio set to the post office and connected it to a generator and began calling Belize City and other parts of the colony on amateur bands. Nobody seemed to have been listening for there was no answer. Father Pick sent an S O S to any station that would answer. A man by the name of Bill Mashec, who was a ham operator in Omaha, Nebraska, heard his call and he answered. He then connected him to to Monsignor Wagner of Boys Town, Nebraska. Monsignor Wagner started a series of phone calls to Washington D.C. asking them to inform the British Officials there that Corozal had been struck by a serious hurricane. Bill was able to touch base with Mr. Egerton Eves who operates a ham set in Stann Creek. Mr. Eves was able to relay back into Belize with the news. The relief work swung into full action.
The Caribbean Hurricane Network has on record that on September 27, 1955, Hurricane Janet, not content with battering Grenada, turned Corozal Town into rubble. Winds of up to 175 miles an hour making it one of the most powerful hurricanes in the Atlantic Hurricane Season on record. At its strongest, it was a Category 5 with atmospheric pressure of 914 mbar ( hPa; 27 inHg). Hurricane Janet also has the dubious record of causing the loss of the first hurricane hunter aircraft, a P2V Neptune.
In the interview with Mrs. Francisca Riverol, she explains that it had been raining all day but at nightfall the rain became heavier and the wind stronger. Dr. Walters in his interview suggest that around 10 p.m. that night, September 27, 1955, the rain was so heavy that is was almost impossible to to sleep. The wind was steadily increasing. At about quarter past eleven the brunt of the hurricane was on Corozal Town. By midnight you could have heard the houses crumbling and a gauntlet of flying debris and corrugated sheets crashing all over. The wind came in gust and it shook the buildings. Mrs. Walters claimed that she would never forget that sound in her life.
The lull came at about 1:40 a.m. The lull was just as terrible as the storm. The people were worried because it got so still all of a sudden. There was no peace in the actual stillness. The people realized that the other half of the storm was yet to come.
The second half of the storm started at about 2:05 a.m. It was expected for the tides to come up this time but it was not so. The wind was never in one direction for more than a few seconds. This went on with a unabated fury until almost 3:30 a.m. and after then it died.
At day break after the hurricane, Dr. Walters, managed to get a few of the casualties over to the presbytery, one of a few building surviving the storm. There was nothing left of the hospital so all he could give them was consolation. At about 5 p.m. that evening Major Shute came in with a supply of drugs and bandages. It helped until Ms. Stromwall came. The sisters from the Convent’s kitchen was left standing and they aided the wounded with food and tea.
Looting was prevalent after the storm but the police managed to stop it. On receiving the official news of the disaster in Corozal the Red Cross rallied to the call. A squad of detchment members under Miss Stromwall, the Headquarters field officer set out to Corozal by road. They provided first aid on their arrival to ground zero. After more doctors and nurses came to provide assistance, the Red Cross took on the work of setting up a kitchen for providing food for the sick. Clothing distribution was also the job of the Red Cross. The people of Belize responded wonderfully to the appeal and soon boxes, bags and valises started coming in from all parts of the country.
My grandmother mentions that the people would make long lines at the plaza to collect bowls of rice with pig tail.
According to The British Honduran Newspaper, His Excellency the Acting Governor of British Honduras was also the Chairman of the Hurricane Janet Appeal. He collected more than $20,000 in less than a week of the appeal and more was expected to come in.
The British Honduras Newspaper, October 1955 recorded the Secretary of State’s broadcasted message of sympathy to the victims of the hurricane. In his message he stated: “Two days after it passed over the northern part of British Honduras, flattening whole villages and completely destroying the little town of Corozal and everything in it — hospital, churches, schools and private houses.”
Mrs. Francisca Riverol (oral interview) explains that the center of town was not flooded but in the area called La Bacadia, the water rose to about 3 feet. This coincides to the version Dr. Walters reported to the BHBS, “Part of Corozal around the Anglican Church, the minister’s house was demolished, had three feet of water as the sea wall built in that area was completely smashed.”
According to David Romney, crop damage was about 100%. The corn and sugar were severely damage, salvaging the seed and used for next year. The fruit trees around the houses and in the milpa and parajes were nearly wiped out of the ground. Mr. Adolfo Romero’s concrete canteen, one of the few concrete building had collapse killing a few people. There were only about 10 houses still standing. Thatched houses were blown away and people could not longer identify where there homes once stood.
The 'Self-Help' by the government and the people was the principle behind the recovery of the town. The joint effort of both government and people contributed to the achievement of the New Corozal we have today.
The British Honduran states that the government asked the people to be patient if relief did not come in time but that it was on the way. The clearing of yards with the help of Public Works Department to private householders and the construction of temporary wooden barracks on the Plaza was the immediate response.
The main roads to Corozal Town and to feeder roads to the villages was a project that immediately started. The construction of an airstrip outside of Corozal Town was a new project that would also be used for landing of aircraft that would deliver international aid.
The great destruction of Corozal by Hurricane Janet brought a new face to Corozal. Mr Schofield’s grandson, William Schofield now the owner of most of the town sold the land to the government for $185,000. The government in turn sold or leased it to the respective citizens who were settling on the land and who wish to have ownership of it. Though tragic, the hurricane created an opportunity for the rebuilding by a band of workers lead by Mr. Henry C. Fairweather. A grant of 3.5 million dollars created a new township, complete with modern electricity, water and sewage. Corozal was the only town during that time which was surveyed and planned by engineered standards.
Post-hurricane Corozal Town became much different. It is now laid out in a wider area. Up on Santa Rita is a modern hospital and the town’s water supply reservoir. On the site of the old hospital ( by the Plaza) is now the concrete Administrative Building, with a post office, treasury, and Magistrate Court. There are now many concrete buildings, several parks and playgrounds and a new sea wall.
D.O.B.: February 17, 1918
Date of Interview: 27th April, 2008
Interviewer: Zeni Perdomo
We are presently here on 2nd Street North and I am going to interview my grandmother Mrs. Francisca Riverol, who is a survivor of Hurricane Janet that occurred on 27th September, 1955 in Corozal Town.
Mrs. Riverol: Your uncle was one year old.
Zeni: How old were you when the hurricane occurred?
Mrs. Riverol: I was 38 years.
Zeni: What type of houses existed in that time before the hurricane?
Mrs. Riverol: Many thatched houses plastered with while lime (calcium carbonate)
Zeni: Were there wooden houses and concrete houses?
Mrs. Riverol: A few wooden houses and a couple cement/concrete houses belonging to the Romero family. Your great grandmother was buried under the rubble. Your uncle took her there and your grandmother.
Zeni: How many streets were there at that time? How many main streets?
Mrs. Riverol: Let me explain to you, you see where the market is (6th ave. with 1st street South) that is where the town ended to the west. Towards the north the town ended at what is now 6th Street North. At the end there was a n area covered with high parcels of grass. Beyond the parcels of grass was the only cemetary.
Zeni: What were the streets made of?
Mrs. Riverol: The streets were covered with white marl.
Zeni: How far was the sea? Was it the way it is now?
Mrs. Riverol: Yes, it was the way it is. But it didn’t have that, a sea wall. No nothing. You could have gone and just dip your feet into the water and get it wet. That was way from the entrance of town. There was no seal wall. Aha.
Zeni: So there were rocks on the edge and then the sea.
Mrs. Riverol: Aha, Aha. Just like the area now called Miami Beach, all that area was land reclamation. Because the sea extended way up to the road. But all that was refilled after the hurricane.
Zeni: So after the hurricane it was reclaimed?
Mrs. Riverol: Yes, I think so. Aha Like the church, it was different than it is now. I have the picture of how it used to be. Have you seen it?
Zeni: We have a picture on the computer.
Mrs. Riverol: OK then. The mexicans built the new church. This one that we have now the round church that we have now.
Zeni: Mommy, how did you become informed about the hurricane? Tell me …
Mrs. Riverol: Well, Papi (her husband), you mean the Hurricane Janet that destroyed Corozal?
Ok Papa travelled to Chetumal to take merchandise to sell aha, it wasn’t Chetumal then, it was Payobispo. Now, after they named it Chetumal. He travelled there to sell tins of butter, Creamy butter. He took that to sell. He took loaves of bread, lots of other things. He took even ammunition for rifles, all of that Mrs. Ola Vasquez would give him on credit and when he came back he would pay her. All of that.
Zeni: He was a merchant?
Mrs. Riverol: Aha, he was a merchant, he took those things to sell. Aha …
Zeni: So how did the information get to you?
Mrs. Riverol: Oh, Papa arrived and brought a Chetumal Newspaper and that day, well your aunt Linda was young then she was dating Romeo, now her husband. We were doing laundry. The three lines of clothes got lost. The wind took it, God knows where. So that night the wind blew, aha, so when your grandfather brought the newspaper that night it was raining. My chicken coop, was all gone, God knows where it went. My chicken laid eggs, I fed them corn. Well then your grandfather arrived and put the newspaper down and Linda took it, she started reading it and she said “Mommy come and see, you know wahat the newspaper is claiming? That a hurricane is approaching that it is like a strong wind. That it is like a strong wind.” Don’t really remember if it was the day of the hurricane would strike or the day before. She was girlfriend to Romeo, her husband, Mrs. Bat’s son. She had a store. Yes, she read it and said that a hard wind will come called hurricane. Let me see it … I asked her to read it myself, ah, true I told her ah, God knows what that is girl. But I really can’t recall what day of the week it was or when it was coming.
So it came. Don’t really remember how long after we read about it. Aha, but like the houses then had wooden attics, the wooden houses, wooden attics. Well at the end of the street where Carmen and Bambi live, I lived where Machin lives, Mrs. Chepa lived infront of our house.
Zeni: Before you continue. So you got ready for the hurricane?
Mrs. Riverol: No, nothing.
Zeni: What type of house did you have?
Mrs. Riverol: It was made out of pimenta and thatched roof. It only had 4 years that it had been built. Aha, a man built it, can’t remember the name of the man who built it, but he lived at the entrance. Aha. Your grandfather had three horses, one named Shambran, the other I can’t recall and one a male horse with strenght, can’t recall how you call those.
Zeni: Stallion in English.
Mrs. Riverol: These horses carried all the load of the thatch to build the house. The floor was high, made out of wood. My house was new only 4 years.
Zeni: Mommy, what did the people do for a living? How did they get money?
Mrs. Riverol: The ships came from Belize. One was called Africola and the other was Romulos. The Romulos was the smaller one. And at there at the wharf, was a like a metal table with wheels and when the ships arrived at the warf there were concrete columns, I think there was where the ships were docked.
Zeni: So what did the ships come for?
Mrs. Riverol: Oh, they brought goods. Like groceries for the town. To bring flour, beans, rice, canned food and much more. Your grandfather would take his cart. Mr. Bell Mahares, another man, they went to transport the goods from there on the carts. How much do you think they pay them? They paid them 10 dollars. No, only one dollar. But in that time girl, with 50 cents you could have eaten well.