Reader’s Letter: Regional first full-scale tsunami warning test reveals improvements needed in many areas

POSTED: 04/4/11 12:09 PM

Puerto Rico may get tsunami warning center

Dear Editor,

The first full-scale test of the tsunami warning system in the Caribbean on March 23 has highlighted the need to reinforce preparations as well as improve communication, evacuation plans and the role of the private sector, according to a preliminary evaluation of the exercise by the United Nations (UN). The simulated tsunami alert, dubbed Caribe Wave 2011, involved 34 countries. Under the test scenario, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of the Virgin Islands, which generated a tsunami with waves reaching up to ten meters.

The exercise tested the Tsunami and other Coastal Hazards Warning System for the Caribbean and Adjacent Regions (Caribe EWS), which was set up in 2005 under the aegis of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The exercise highlighted a number of gaps in the transmission of information, UNESCO stated in a news release, noting that in several areas, the message was not received by the Global Telecommunications System (GTS). In other cases, reception of messages via the Emergency Managers Weather Information Network (EMWIN) failed. At national level only a few mobile telephone operators joined the exercise. Populations and media throughout the region keenly followed the exercise, which also allowed for an evaluation of evacuation plans and the role of the private sector in the case of a catastrophe, the agency added.

UNESCO officials have stated that they are delighted with the level of participation in this exercise and the interest that has been shown by local populations. The Director-General Irina Bokova of UNESCO added that such drills are essential to evaluate the efficiency of warning systems and ensure their efficient operation when catastrophe strikes. Similar exercises have been held in the Pacific (2008) and Indian Ocean (2009) regions.

It’s a question of time when there will be a large earthquake triggering a tsunami in the Caribbean. A stark reminder is the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti 14-months ago measuring 7.0 in magnitude. That earthquake affected an estimated three million people and killed an estimated 100, 000 to 300, 000 people.

The Haiti earthquake 14-months ago also triggered a three-meter high (9 foot) tsunami that struck some areas of the coast south of the capital Port au Prince. It was described as a relatively small event and the main causes being local landslides into the sea. According to a tsunami researcher Eddie Bernard from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, anything between seven and 7.5 magnitude can cause smaller, local tsunamis.

Earthquakes under the sea generate tsunamis.  In 1946, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake hit the Dominican Republic triggering a tsunami that killed almost 2, 000 people. The last earthquake to trigger a tsunami in the Caribbean was in 1867 with a magnitude of 7.3 (21 foot). It triggered a tsunami of 7.6 meters near the Virgin Islands and a 10 meter (30 foot) in Guadeloupe. So it’s not a question of if, but when.

Historical tsunami records from sources such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) and the National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) show that over 75 tsunamis with validity greater than one have been observed in the Caribbean over the past 500 years. Since 1842 at least 3, 510 people have lost their lives to tsunamis in the Caribbean.

For St. Maarten, various scenarios will have to be developed with respect to a tsunami hitting the island from the East, West, North and South. Each scenario will have to have a plan of action for the populace and business community. The second stage is the post-tsunami period where a plan has to be drafted for the rebuilding of part(s) of the nation.

Virgin Islands Delegate Donna M. Christensen co-sponsored a bill recently in the US Congress to establish a third national tsunami warning center, to be located in Puerto Rico. The bill would amend the Tsunami Warning and Education Act to direct the NOAA administrator, through the National Weather Service, to establish, maintain, and operate a Caribbean tsunami forecast and warning center in Puerto Rico. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. This is a very significant development for St. Maarten and the countries of the Caribbean Basin.

Roddy Heyliger

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