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BEHIND THE QUAKES - Former Earthquake Unit boss says agency underutilised

Published:Thursday | January 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Dr Lyndon Brown

WITH JUST about 200 earthquakes occurring in Jamaica annually, the island can ill afford to remain indifferent to the work of the Earthquake Unit.

Yet, according to the former unit head and research fellow, Dr Lyndon Brown, this is oftentimes what happens as local authorities and developers alike request only basic data to inform their activities.

"Some of the developments do not give serious thought to earthquake and seismic vulnerability. They will look at where the faults are and how frequently earthquakes happen in the [various] areas, but it is not thorough enough," Brown said.

"And somehow the Earth-quake Unit is not fully involved in the plans. There is a lack of knowledge on the value of the Earthquake Unit in the analysis," he added.

Further, Brown said the Ministry of Science, Techno-logy, Energy, and Mining, which bankrolls the unit to the tune of $30 million each year, currently requires reports that say only how the allocation is spent. The detailed studies being done by the unit, meanwhile, are not shared.

At the same time, Brown, a geophysicist, said more needs to be done to bolster the work of the unit even as people are shown its value.

Equipment needed

"The Earthquake Unit and the seismic component must be taken into consideration from very early in the development process. The whole geology and site-specific assessment is very important, and the resources available at the Earthquake Unit need to be improved so that some of the assessments can be done quite early," he said.

As things stand, the unit has only basic equipment.

"So we can tell when an earthquake happened and where it happened, but we need to look more at the fault activity so we need more instruments like the accelerometer - a high-strength seismic instrument that can tell how a building or a particular area responds when an earthquake happens," he told The Gleaner via Skype, from his new home in Texas.

Added Brown: "In California - a high earthquake-prone area like Jamaica - every building over 60,000 square feet is required to have at least three strong-motion seismic instruments located on the different levels, and then one which allows you to make the comparison with the natural ground response to the building."

"Here in Jamaica, we could look at doing the same for Kingston, Montego Bay and major towns where you have, for example, big schools," he said.

Of the 200 earthquakes each year, about 10 are felt events and have magnitudes of three on the Richter Scale.

Progress made

Still, all is not lost. In the four years he headed the unit, Brown said they were able to make some progress. There was, for example, good collaboration with the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), with whom they share information and partner on proposals for funding.

"ODPEM has been very supportive of the unit. Only recently we were part of a proposal to the World Bank, through the Planning Institute of Jamaica for seismic hazard assessment as part of a wider project component," Brown noted.

Partnerships with a number of overseas institutions, including the University of Texas, Austin, have also yielded some advances in the area of research.

However, there remains some way to go.