Sun | Jan 20, 2019

Earth Today | Disaster pros mull readiness for earthquakes

Published:Thursday | January 18, 2018 | 12:00 AM

THE NEED to prioritise Jamaica's readiness for earthquakes has come rushing ashore the consciousness of many Jamaicans, in the wake of the recent tsunami warning issued for the island, and only days shy of the eighth anniversary of the catastrophic 2010 Haiti event.

"An earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 7.8 occurred north of Honduras at 0252 (2:52 a.m.) UTC on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 ... Hazardous tsunami waves from this earthquake are possible within 1,000 km of the epicentre along the coasts of the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Mexico, Honduras, Cuba, Belize, San Andres Providencia, Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala," read the warning issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre last week.

While the waves did not come to Jamaica, the warning sent ripples across Twittersphere while providing an opportunity to jump-start a national discussion on tsunamis, which are ocean waves produced by earthquakes or underwater landslides.

"Earthquake risk for Jamaica is real and high. Tsunamis may be generated by earthquakes and there is no forward warning as obtains with hurricanes. This makes earthquake preparedness vital for Jamaica, which is so vulnerable. Regrettably, we tend to pay little attention to natural hazard risks before we are struck and then we go into crisis mode - fire fighting!" said Eleanor Jones, head of the consultancy firm Environmental Solutions Limited.


Tsunami Warning


"This tendency is self-destructive. Jamaica needs to implement a structured tsunami warning system for the vulnerable areas as a matter of urgency. Disaster risk management specialists have identified these areas, and there is a regional tsunami warning programme that should be adopted. Some territories are making good progress; St Thomas in the Virgin Islands is one such," she added.

Evan Thompson, head of the Meteorological Service, which is said to function as an alternate for the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) as the focal point for tsunami alert for Jamaica, agreed.

"We should be concerned about tsunami waves across our shores. History is telling us it has happened before, so it would be foolhardy to tell ourselves it can't happen again and not prepare ourselves for it," he told The Gleaner.

"If we came so close last week with an alert being issued for such a strong earthquake in our waters or in the waters so close to Jamaica, we really have to look at what our procedures are, what our plans are, and how we are really going to deal with it if it does occur," he added.

Former head of the Earthquake Unit at the University of the West Indies Dr Lyndon Brown said that there are some essential elements to this preparedness.

"There is a distinct protocol by the Tsunami Warning Centre regarding tsunami affecting a region. This protocol must be reinforced and adhered to so as to minimise chaos. We also need to continuously streamline and keep the channels open for tsunami warning and response," he noted.

Brown, now an independent geophysics consultant and geology instructor at LoneStar College in Houston Texas, added that there is need for community alert systems, the identification of vulnerable zones, and the creation of awareness "so the residents will know how to respond". There is too, he said, the need for shelters in higher elevations.

Like Jones, he said that there is no questioning the urgent need for these things.

"A lot of fault activity that historically generated large events was not known before it happened, so we cannot be too relaxed or disregard the possibility for this to happen in an active seismic region," Brown warned.

Jamaica shares the Enriquillo Plantain Garden Fault that ruptured to cause the devastation in Haiti eight years ago. That quake, a devastating magnitude seven event, left hundreds of thousands of people dead and billions of dollars in damage.

In addition, Jamaica has experienced earthquakes similar to Haiti in 2010. A 1692 event destroyed Port Royal while a 1907 quake cost the lives of 1,000 people in Kingston.