Iris Leaves Trail Of Tears In Belize

Hurricane Iris, the year's most violent Atlantic storm, killed at least 15 U.S. tourists on a diving boat, wiped out Belize's banana crop and left 13,000 people homeless before losing strength over land.

"Belize has greatly suffered once again," Prime Minister Said Musa said in a radio broadcast Tuesday, a day after Iris pounded this small Central American nation with 140 mph winds.

Iris, which barreled into southern Belize on Monday night, crossed over Guatemala and destroyed hundreds of houses before weakening to a tropical depression. The remains of the storm had drifted into the Pacific Ocean by Tuesday.

In its most deadly act, the storm capsized the MV Wave Dancer, a yacht carrying 20 divers from the Richmond, Va. area and eight crew members. Officials said at least 15 divers died when the yacht capsized after seeking shelter in a small bay. Three divers and five crew members were rescued and five others were missing.

"We're hoping for (more) survivors, but I don't know that it's likely," said Patricia Rose, spokeswoman for Peter Hughes Diving in Miami, which coordinated the trip for the Richmond Dive Club.

Iris wreaked havoc through the resort district of Stann Creek and the agricultural district of Toledo, said Vaughan Gill, a spokesman for the prime minister. Up to 95 percent of the banana crop was devastated, Gill said. While sugar remains Belize's chief crop, the banana industry is the country's largest employer. Tourism is also an important economic sector.

Several resorts, including the peninsula town of Placencia, were heavily damaged, Gill said. Government officials estimate preliminary losses at $250 million, he said.

Although there were no other deaths reported and only a few minor injuries, at least 13,000 people were homeless after Iris destroyed roofs and smashed homes. More than 80 villages were affected, but most residents were safe because they had moved into shelters, Gill said.

Belizean rescue officials sent tents as temporary shelters, but weren't able to reach many areas that remained inaccessible Tuesday, Gill said. Neighboring Honduras promised to send helicopters to ferry the tents into the isolated areas on Wednesday, he said.

The eye of the hurricane passed through the small coastal towns of Independence and Monkey River Town, ripping down power lines, cutting off telephone service and water and isolating some villages. A nighttime curfew was in effect in the devastated areas, Gill said.

On the road between the two towns, palm trees had been stripped down to naked sticks and thousands of cottonwood and ceiba trees looked as if they had been flattened by a steamroller.

Darlene Coleman, 33, sat on wooden steps leading up to a friend's roofless house in Independence, and considered her options Tuesday night; all the nearby shelters were full. ShE spent a harrowing night Monday huddled in the corner of a local church, which had its roof blown off during the storm.

"It was an ugly soud, like a giant wrench being twisted and ripping this place out," she said. "It was something out of a scary movie."

By Julie Watson ©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed