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EDITORIAL - Tsunami lessons for Jamaica

Published:Saturday | March 12, 2011 | 12:00 AM

The world snapped to attention Friday as news emerged that an 8.9-magnitude earthquake had rattled Japan and spawned tsunami warnings for several countries and territories as the deadly waves rolled over the Pacific Rim.

For the more than 7,000 islands, cays and reefs bordering the Caribbean Sea and which are located within an active seismic arc, this disaster was no threat. However, it will likely trigger memories of January 2010 when tsunami warnings were issued after a devastating earthquake in Haiti.

The Caribbean Basin has experienced eight per cent of the world's tsunami, with today's quickening urbanisation of high-risk coastal zones providing the ingredients for disaster. Scientists have been worrying about when the next tsunami will occur and their concern intensified in 2005. It is human nature to become complacent and forget our vulnerabilities during the good times, but Friday's horrific events should help to keep the realities of natural disasters in the public mind.

Since no one can accurately predict when the next one will strike, there has to be a well-thought-out warning system which includes educating people by raising awareness about the lethal nature of this phenomenon that can create massive waves with the ability to travel as fast as a commercial airplane.

Given the massive real-estate investments in coastal areas like Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril, investors should be actively urging the Government to put disaster mitigation at the top of its agenda. Investors need the assurance that the disaster-management systems of the country can effectively detect tsunami threats or storm surges and all other disasters, and have the ability to efficiently move the population to higher ground and away from the areas to be affected.

Regional warning system

Both major airports, which represent millions of dollars of infrastructure investment, are also vulnerable to the potentially devastating waves of tsunamis and storm surges and should be protected to minimise loss and destruction.

It is laudable that the Caribbean has been working on installing its own tsunami warning system, and already the United Nations Development Programme has provided funding for Barbados to host a Caribbean Tsunami Information Centre to help educate local communities about how to respond to tsunami emergencies.

The Bahamas, recognising that tourism is its lifeblood and the exposure of its many coastal sites which, while being great attractions for visitors, can turn deadly in a moment, has been very active in training disaster officials and getting a campaign going to educate its citizens about the possibility of tsunami disaster.

The same strategy has been employed by the Virgin Islands. We suggest that Jamaica should become proactive in starting a campaign of preparedness and education for its own population, which will serve to reinforce other regional efforts.

Until the regional warning system is operational, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii is providing interim tsunami-watch services for the region. Meanwhile, it is reassuring to learn that the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency is currently implementing major information and communication technologies initiatives aimed at reducing the vulnerability of the region to hazard impact.

In this regard, flood early-warning system workshops are being geared towards developing and testing the operational flood early-warning systems protocol and to demonstrate the uses of GIS in enhancing field operations during the planning and management of flood evacuation.

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