On the Ground in Chetumal - Just after a Cat 5 Hurricane!
The International Fund for Animal Welfare deployed two staff members to join up with existing on the ground staff in Chetumal, Mexico in an effort to asses the extent of the damage caused by the landing of Hurricane Dean, at the time a catagory 5 storm...the largest since 1992. IFAW's Chris Cutter provided this detailed post earlier today.
August 22, 2007
The IFAW team lands in Chetumal, Mexico about 48 hours after Hurricane Dean slammed into the Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 5 Hurricane. Dean is the third most powerful hurricane to ever hit the Atlantic coast of Mexico and the most powerful hurricane to hit since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Hurricane Dean was measured with gusts of wind up to 165 MPH and has, at the time of this writing, killed 18 people in its rampage across the Caribbean and Mexico.
Upon arriving in Chetumal, and flying over the hurricane from Mexico City, the team is met by Marco Benetiz our local contact and guide. The IFAW team consists of Dick Green, who leads the effort, Eduardo Santurtun, from IFAW's Latin American office and Chris Cutter, a Communications Manager for IFAW. Marco lives in Chetumal with his wife and son and rode out the storm in town. He and his family are fine and now his attention, and ours, has turned to the affected animals in the area. Marco works for a zoo called African Safari which is known for its research and conservation work across Mexico. It is Marco who oversees the zoo's progressive work.
We check into a hotel which has electricity via a generator. The hotel is below the street level and must have sustained significant water damage in the storm as our rooms smell like a musty basement. The hotel, impressively, is up and running and recovering like much of this city. Chetumal is at the very south of the Yucatan Peninsula, on the Atlantic Ocean, and just north of Belize. We are in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, which is known for its tourist areas in the north (Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen) as well as for its numerous nature reserves and its Mayan ruins. It is also home to an endangered population of manatee (only about 250 left) and a rare population of salt-water crocodiles (in Banco Chinchurro). Both are near Chetumal and we make a plan to check on the status of both.
August 23, 2007
7 am Chetumal
At 7 am the IFAW heads out of Chetumal. The clean-up from the storm is well underway in this town of about 200,000 people. Trees and branches had been cut up and stacked in the medians of the main roads. Most of the roads have been cleared of debris, and although damage from the hurricane was visible everywhere (canopies ripped off buildings, fallen fences, broken windows, downed trees) the town fared relatively well. In the morning everywhere we went one could hear the sounds of chain saws cutting through trees and hammers hammering. Businesses are replacing windows and cleaning up debris. Most of the town was without electricity last night (a few businesses were running generators) but on our way out of town, heading north on the highway toward Cancun, we spot a line of perhaps a dozen utility trucks staging at a Burger King. The only report we have of animals affected in Chetumal is the zoo, which has been destroyed, however the animals are okay in their “night cages.” We plan to check on this later.
Driving north out of Chetumal, the countryside turns more rural and we drive through a dense forest. Palm trees are ripped out of the ground by their roots and above a height of perhaps 10 meters virtually every tree has been snapped off. A small town called Muay-Pix is typical of the destruction: Significant tree damage, some standing water (most of the flooding has already receded) and damage to the homes mostly limited to the roofs. Most of the homes here are made of cinderblocks and concrete and are, consequently, very strong. The roofs, however, are often tin or thatch and sustained the most damage in the storm.
Also north of Chetumal are community lands where locals raise livestock, these seem to be relatively unharmed. We also pass cocoa plantations which look like they sustained significant damage. Two days ago the road we are driving upon was completely flooded.
8 am CIVS
We stop at CIVS San Felipe Bacalar. CIVS is an acronym for Centro Investigacion Vida Silvestre. It is a research center for wildlife run by the government and animals such as jaguars, and a turkey-like animal called ocofaesan live in and around the center. From the highway CIVS is located 8km into the deep brush. That road is now impassable, covered with fallen trees and limbs. The day prior, CIVS director Pilar Navarro tells us, one of her men walked 5 hours back through the forest to check on the animals. The habitats and enclosures are damaged and the animals are spooked but okay. The concern is the long-term for the animals, they need to be regularly fed and cared for and the impassable road makes this very, very difficult. Pilar tells us that the government has promised to send heavy machinery to clear the road. If that doesn’t happen IFAW will help.
9am African Safari
The IFAW team travels back to a conservation project run by African Safari. African Safari runs several conservation and research projects across Mexico. The project we visit is one just north of CIVS in the forest off the main road. We travel down a dirt road which has just been cleared the day prior. Marco wants to check on their progress as well as deliver water and supplies to the workers who are using machetes to clear the debris. Here they grow more than 20,000 species of endangered, indigenous plants, which will be transplanted back to their native habitat. Over the past 5 years Safari Africa has planted more than 5,000 trees in the area. The project will also be home to a nascent butterfly nursery which looks like several small greenhouses. The nursery is for endangered butterflies, including a beautiful metallic-blue butterfly called the Morpho native to the region from Southern Mexico to Costa Rica. Other species will include the Caligo and Eliconias butterflies. Unfortunately the nursery will have to be rebuilt; it is completely destroyed. We drop off the supplies and head out.
10 am Bacalar
Laguna Bacalar is known locally as the lagoon of “seven colors” so named because or the multitude of blues and other colors visible in the water throughout the day. The town on the lagoon is also named Bacalar. News reports say that 85% of all the houses in the town of Bacalar were damaged by Dean. We are getting closer to where the eye of the storm passed through Mexico. A cinderblock wall in front of the Hotel Laguna has been destroyed, a testament to the power of the winds. We spot a few stray dogs and feral cats but find no significant affect to companion animals in the town.
11 am Fuel
The plan for the afternoon is to buy fuel to take a boat out in the Bay of Chetumal to assess the habitat and population of the highly endangered manatees that live there. There are only an estimated 250 manatees remaining and the concern is the damage to the mangroves that make up their habitat and possible stranded manatees. With such a low population every animal counts for the fight against extinction. The Mexican Navy has agreed to donate a boat and crew as long as IFAW provides the fuel. This means enduring the long line at the gas station. Mexico’s state-run oil agency, Pemex, temporarily shut down oil production as Dean raged across the country. The oil is now flowing again and everyone is cued up in long lines at all the stations to fill cars, trucks, gas cans, and generators. We wait for fuel, pick up cash we will need later and have lunch before heading down to the marina. All around the signs of recovery are evident. A convoy of 5-ton Army trucks passes through toward the most affected areas. A Nissan dealer stacks furniture in the sun to dry. Vendors sweep debris from in front of their shops. Home owners tack new shingles and tin roofing onto their homes.
1pm To the manatees
We are joined at the boat by Victor, the Director of the Reserva Baia de Chetumal (part of the bay protected by the government for the manatees) and a local supervisor for Mexico’s environmental ministry. The eight of us (3 crew, Victor, 3 IFAW and Marco) head off in a large, simple, fiberglass, flat-bottomed boat. The captain of the Navy wears a sidearm and I ask why and am told that sometimes they find illegal fishing in the protected areas and a weapon is needed for both protection and apprehension.
The seas are choppy and clouded with sediment from the storm. The normally clear blue water is milky white and the waves are relentless. We motor across the bay bouncing wave to wave. It feels like someone is kicking me in the ass (hard) about two times a second. Within 15 minutes we are all wet. Dick Green is soaking.
An hour or so across the bay we reach two islands called Dos Hermanos (two brothers) and circle both. Large vulture-like birds called “fragata” circle the island overhead and rest in the destroyed trees. Pelicans rest here and there. The mangroves that sustain so much marine life are mostly destroyed and in defense those plants have automatically released something called “taninos” (tannins) to protect their remaining leaves. The taninos bleed into the water and color it blood red. This too has its own environmental impact, on marine species and, to the east of Chetumal, on the coral reef there. We do not find any stranded manatees and can not see any of the animals in the murky water. We move on, crossing 24 kilometers to another part of the bay, a long bumpy ride. As we go we scan the shoreline for stranded manatees but find none. After checking along the coast we turn into Laguna Guererro, an estuary where the manatees frequent. Marco suspects most of the manatees fled to this area for protection during the storm. The area is chocked with mangroves and removed from human populations, probably the safest area for the manatees to retreat to. Again, as we go we looking for stranded animals. We make our way past a stand used to monitor the manatees and to the rehabilitation center run by Victor. At the center we meet Daniel, a mantee that was rescued in 2003. Daniel was washed out of the rehab center during the storm. Because of media attention around his rescue, Daniel is something of a local celebrity. Daniel was rescued as a very young animal and is being rehabilitated at the center before being completely released to the wild. We feed Daniel and start for the long ride back. A rainbow appears arching across the sky, which we take for a lucky omen only to be mistaken as we are caught in a sea squall on the return trip home. All of us pull up at the marina, just before dark, completely soaked and tired from a long day in the sun. As we pull up to the dock a flock of "golondrina" birds swirl overhead. It is a mass of birds larger than I have ever seen, thick like fog of mosquitos, thousands and thousands of birds. At times the birds appear to move as a single organism, dipping and swirling, at times they move against each other in a chaotic mess. The Chetumal locals say they have never seen such a thing and suspect the birds are still confused from the storm.
9 pm Ministry of the Environment
It is dark now and we head to meet Maria del Carmen Garcia Rivas, the Director of Banco Chinchorro (the island to the east of Chetumal, where the salt water crocodiles and coral reef is located.) Maria del Carmen is with the Comison Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas, Mexico’s environmental agency (aka SEMARNAT). She gives us a briefing on everything the agency knows to date. The day prior the government sent a team to assess the damage to the protected areas. She shows us hundreds of the pictures SEMARNAT took from the air, explaining each. Banco Chinchorro has 100% tree defoilation. There are no leaves left. She explains that the island is a resting site for migratory birds, like commorants, and is worried how defoilation may affect the birds. In addition sediment rings the water around the island, along with the taninos from the mangroves. The normally crystal-clear water is black in parts. The clear blue sea that sustains the reef and all its life is clouded over with this black, red and milky water. The damage to the mangroves, which sustains the small sea life critical to the reef, will affect all the sea life in the area. Hurricane Andrew destroyed about 20% of the reef and she fears Dean’s impact may be similar or worse. A fishing village on the island was completely destroyed and the the lagoon where the endangered salt water crocodiles live is blood red from the taninos. The only good news is that a large cargo ship which was stranded in the reef during Hurricane Wilma (and which subsequently destroyed about a hectare of the reef) was moved by the storm enough that it may now be possible to tow it out.
Maria del Carmen also gives us all the other information the ministry has concerning the protected areas in Quintana Roo. North of Chetumal, where the storm made landfall, is destroyed. Fortunately, from a humanitarian standpoint, the biggest impact was in low-population areas, but the ecological damage is significant. Rocks and debris bury sea turtle habitat. Mangroves are destroyed. Trees are uprooted en mass … it will be some time before a more accurate assessment of the damage is known. Maria del Carmen tells us what the government knows and we discuss possible collaboration. She suspects that she will have a more complete assessment in about a week and more detail in approximately 15 days.
All of us are still wet from the boat ride and we head out to dinner to plan out the next days activities. All of us need to check email, messages and file reports. We fall asleep between 1 and 2 am and plan to meet in the morning to set out again.