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Earth Today | ‘Spare a thought for tsunami literacy’

Published:Thursday | February 15, 2018 | 12:10 AMBY PETRE WILLIAMS-RAYNOR

RETIRED DISASTER risk reduction professional Franklin McDonald has flagged the need to examine the extent of Jamaica's tsunami literacy, if the readiness of the population and the efficiency of responders are to be assured in an event.

"The last month has seen several incidents where early warning systems (EWS) have failed to function perfectly. These include the January 9 event in the Caribbean Sea; the event associated with a magnitude 7.9 earthquake event off Alaska; the Hawaii nuclear attack false alarm; and the false alarm triggered by the western Atlantic Tsunami EWS last week," said the man who was director for the Institute for Sustainable Development at the University of the West Indies.

"In other words, EWSs require very careful design, clear procedures and protocols, a transparent chain of command and rigid forensic review whenever they are tested, or triggered by actual or false events. It also goes without saying that they assume the existence of trained, dedicated staff support, and high levels of tsunami literacy on the part of the recipients," McDonald told The Gleaner.

His canvas of recent news reports and commentary related to the January 9 event left him feeling a little uneasy for Jamaica.

"It seemed to me that Jamaica may still have a low level of tsunami literacy. There was little reference to whether or not the Tsunami Information Product was an Information Note, an Alert, or a Warning. It is important to recognise that the TWC (Tsunami Warning Centre) vernacular is quite disciplined and follows a prescribed sequence," he said.

"In the same way that the weather information products associated with severe weather use terms such as Advisory, Watch, Warning sequentially to signal increased seriousness, the TWCs have developed a parallel nomenclature which does not seem to be familiar to the Jamaican audience. This is a vital component of tsunami literacy," explained McDonald, who was, more recently, a visiting scholar at York University in Canada.




A tsunami warning, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, means "dangerous coastal flooding and powerful current possible" while an advisory means "strong currents and waves dangerous to those in or very near water possible".

A tsunami watch means "distant tsunami possible" while an information statement means "no threat or very distant event and threat not determined".

Further, McDonald, who was more recently a visiting scholar at the University of York in Canada, said the articles and commentary also suggested limited consideration for Jamaica's offshore cays.

"It is my understanding that up to 2000 fisherfolk occupy the Pedro and Morant cays on a regular basis. I assume that the fishing authorities and Coast Guard would have some means of alerting them in the event of tsunami wave travelling through the Caribbean Sea. As these cays are low, the potential impacts of even a relatively low amplitude wave should have been carefully assessed," he said.

"It should be noted that in the case of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake, concerns were expressed as to whether the Tsunami Information released by the Tsunami Warning Centre took the Jamaican cays into consideration," McDonald added.

The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) has on its website some information on tsunamis and, as far back as 2011, reportedly participated in a tsunami simulation exercise regionally.

"It was really to look at our own protocol for dealing with a tsunami threat, and to really see how our current resources would be deployed, how our existing early warnings mechanisms could be used, to disseminate the warning information out to the last mile," then head of the ODPEM Ronald Jackson told JIS at the time.