Monday

Belize Survivor, part 87

Meanwhile, Alexis paced nervously in the yard, keeping an ear out for Jordan to awake, and an eye out for Max’s return. She couldn’t conceive of what he might be facing down at the river’s edge, and an errant thought made her vaguely consider what might happen if her husband simply failed to return altogether. Even though only about forty minutes had passed, it seemed like a lifetime before he finally re-emerged out of the bush at the top of the hill. He was soaked and filthy with muddy water from head to foot.

"This flood must be the highest in anyone's memory. It's completely covered the pump house.” Max was maintaining his calm. Having handled many natural disasters in Africa, Alexis had to admit he was a good man in a crisis, and was determined to step up to the same level of self-control. “As far as I can tell the structure is still in one piece, so the two machines are probably still inside, right there under the water. I'm going down with some rope and see if I can fish them out." Concentrating on his non-emotional focus, Alexis asked him if he wanted her to come with him. "Not yet,” he replied. “Wait about a half hour, and then come down. I should have the machines out of the water and on the bank by that time. You can help me bring them up the hill. If Jordan’s awake, you’ll have to bring him with you. We won’t have a choice."

"I understand,” she said, evenly. “Be careful."

Sliding down the hill once more, Max made his way to the water’s edge. He tied one end of the rope to a nearby tree and the other around his waist. Fighting his own buoyancy, it took six attempts to locate the door of the pump house and several more to get the key into the padlock while underwater. Pushing his lungs beyond capacity, he nearly drowned himself trying to force the door open, but it was crucial to retrieve the engines and strip them promptly. With a superhuman strength born out of necessity, he finally wrestled the outboard motor from the water, hoisted it to his shoulder, and carried it up the slippery bank.

Alexis met him at the top of the hill.

“Jordan is still sleeping. Do you want me to come help you get the other one?”

"Yes. We'll have to take a chance,” he replied. “The pump is much heavier than the outboard; I won’t be able to carry it alone."

The runoff from the distant mountains continued to funnel into the Macal. The great river was still rising, and Alexis was shocked when she came to the edge of the brown swirling torrent.

"It's okay,” said Max. “You don't have to go in. I've already done this a bunch of times. You stay here and watch the rope. This time I'm going to tie it on to the pump, rather than myself. When you feel me tug twice, start hauling. You'll be pulling the pump and I'll be pushing it, so keep this end wrapped around the tree. It will act as a winch so it won't backslide. We'll be out of here in five minutes." He paused. "Are you scared?"

"I'm worried about Jordan waking up in the house alone. And I’m worried about flash floods,” she said. “Look at the current out there. I know you’ll be close to the edge, but this time you won't even be tied to the rope."

"We don’t have a choice, so let's get it over with."

Once freed from the water, getting the heavy waterlogged piston pump back up the hill was one of the hardest physical efforts Alexis had ever made in her life. Four times she and Max stumbled and fell with the heavy piece of machinery. Once she slipped off the trail and would have disappeared over the bank if she hadn't latched onto a sturdy vine. When they finally reached the house, providence was on their side; Jordan was still asleep.

Immediately they launched into the next phase. There was no time to waste. Max started to strip the pump, and simultaneously coached Alexis on how to do the same with the outboard. Every minute out of the water compounded the likelihood of irreparable corrosion in the circuitry. When Jordan finally awoke three hours later, they were close to finishing, and although Max couldn’t be absolutely sure the machines were in working order until he had the opportunity to test them, it appeared that they had, most likely, averted any permanent damage.

By noon the next day, the river had receded enough to expose the pump house. Finding the end of the dory line still attached to a previously submerged tree, Max followed it, searching the riverbank until he located the craft. The swift water had carried the dugout to the full length of its long rope, the backwater eddies causing it to edge over and finally come to rest high in a bramble of thorny bamboo. Almost impossible to reach from any angle, Max hacked away with the machete until he could seize the heavy craft. Dragging it to the water's edge until it was free-floating, he went back to the pump house and hauled the rope hand-over-hand, until he was able to finally secure the dory beside the pump house. Then, determining that it was time to mount it on the boat for a test, Max hiked back to the house, picked up the motor and started to carry it back down the hill. Suddenly his foot slipped and, as he fell, the outboard shaft hit a rock and bounced up into his face, knocking out the center portion of his two front teeth, adding another element of horror.

It took a full twenty-four hours before Radio Belize came back on the air and only then did Max and Alexis begin to understand the enormity of the nationwide destruction. Listening to the reports of damage and death in the urban areas, the young family realized that, in many ways, they had been safer in the bush. At least they were self-contained and did not depend on public utilities. Taking stock of their situation, Alexis realized they had a full tank of rain water, butane for the stove, their own generator for electricity, and plenty of beans and flour. In addition, they had a good supply of fresh produce: a windfall of limes, hot peppers, and all the avocados they could eat. The best plan would be to sit tight for a few weeks until the rest of the country had a chance to recover.

In the town of San Ignacio, the aftermath of the hurricane was appalling. Floodwaters from the Macal River had risen so high that even the main streets were inundated with up to nine feet of water. The river had rushed through the lower stories of houses and shops, across backyards, and into the outhouse pits, and the water supply was contaminated with sewage and the bodies of dead animals. Power failure was widespread. Families huddled around candles in the darkness at night. Grocery stores on higher ground ran out of dry goods and staple foods immediately. Fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce as farmers found themselves with damaged crops, or the inability to transport their produce into town from outlying villages.

Seventy-five miles away on the east coast, the hurricane had created widespread havoc in low-lying Belize City. Amid gusting winds, a tidal wave had swept over the sea wall and demolished flimsy buildings of wood and cheap cinderblock. Huge trees, torn out by their roots, lay broken amidst the wreckage of walls, roofing, overturned cars, and power lines. Over a period of days, the water receded and a vile stench rose from the stinking carpet of saltwater mud left on the streets and the lower levels of buildings spared by the storm.