Tsunami A Likely Reality For Region

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Image: CDEMA

To many Barbadians, the thought of a tsunami occurring within the region seems highly improbable.??

However, with the latest occurrences in Japan, the deadly earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, in which thousands lost their lives, and flooding along our West Coast, Barbados has been forced to take stock and realise that it is susceptible to all types of natural disasters.

Over the past year, Bajans and the rest of the world watched as a series of unusual disasters unfolded, from the reported earthquake in Haiti, and one in New Zealand, to severe flooding in Australia.?? And let’s not forget the tremor that shook Barbados and other Caribbean territories back in November, 2007.

So the question remains: ??What exactly is a tsunami and what can Barbadians do to prepare themselves for such an eventuality, given the amount of seismic activity within the region?

Programme Officer at the Department of Emergency Management (DEM), Simon Alleyne, in defining the term tsunami, noted that "it is a series of ocean waves caused by a major disturbance of the ocean floor, such as a large underwater earthquake, landslide or a volcanic eruption. According to him, all these sources that trigger tsunamis are to be found in the Caribbean and there are also distant sources across the Atlantic.

"What’s more, we have an underwater volcano in the region, which most persons know as Kick-Em-Jenny and this may cause a tsunami to occur; and we must also remember that the Caribbean is prone to earthquakes both on land and at sea," explained the Programme Officer.

According to Mr. Alleyne, "a tsunami is also an unpredictable event, unlike hurricanes and storms." He said: "Just look at Japan, that came without any warning… whatever window of opportunity there is for warning is not very great because it depends on the type of tsunami."

Pointing out that public education was imperative, the Programme Officer stressed that the mandate of the DEM is different from that of its predecessor, the Central Emergency Relief Organisation which dealt more with weather-based phenomena such as flooding and high rainfall.

He explained: "Right now the DEM’s focus is on comprehensive disaster management which encompasses all types of hazards both man-made and physical, including earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, oil spills, industrial accidents, as well as transportation accidents.

"I think one of our main aims is to really target the schools, because we believe that if we continue to get information through the education system, teachers will eventually get on board with regards to teaching about earthquakes and tsunamis.?? And, this helps in relation to getting the wider population educated."

The Programme Officer further noted that the volunteer arm of the District Emergency Organisations, also at the forefront of the DEM’s public relations, recently disseminated tsunami information as part of a community-based warning system across the parishes of St. John and St. Philip.

Commending this partnership, he said, "It’s important that all these sectors in Barbados have their own emergency plans that would address tsunamis and earthquakes, because the DEM is only a part of the emergency management systems.??

Remember, that we work closely with other government departments and emergency response agencies.?? So we work with them but it is also essential that the various sectors develop plans that address these particular hazards."

Emphasising the DEM’s commitment to educating the public on tsunami preparedness, Mr. Alleyne stressed that the department, along with the Coastal Zone Management Unit, were co-chairs of the Tsunami and Coastal Hazards Standing Committee. This comprises a body of agencies that includes the Barbados Fire Department, the Royal Barbados Police Force, the Ministry of Health, the Telecommunications Unit, the Coastal Zone Management Unit, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Tourism, the Town and Country Development Planning Office, the Barbados Chamber of Commerce and Industry, LIME, the Barbados Light & Power Company Ltd and the Ministry of Public Works.

The committee, Mr. Alleyne remarked, is currently designing a framework to deal with tsunami preparedness for Barbados.

Currently, there is no comprehensive tsunami warning system in the Caribbean; however, an interim agreement exists with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre.?? Scientists and disaster management agencies are also in the process of developing a warning system, but, Mr. Alleyne indicated it could be several years before this is operational.

"With regards to sensitising Barbadians, we have the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) project, which deals with tsunamis and other coastal hazards, not to mention the website http://www.weready.org/. This gives you information about tsunamis and earthquakes amongst other hazards, that may face Barbados and the Caribbean," he explained.

It is a little known fact that tsunamis have impacted the region in the past and are, therefore, likely to occur in the future.?? In a guide on Understanding Tsunamis in the Caribbean developed by the CDEMA, the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre and the United States Agency for International Development, it is noted that: "In the past 500 years, there have been at least 10 destructive, confirmed earthquake-generated tsunamis in the Caribbean Basin with four causing fatalities. ??It is estimated that more than 3000 people were killed by these events.

The article further explains: "…the Caribbean islands lie in an area of relatively high earthquake activity. ??The most likely tsunamis to affect the region are those which can be triggered by shallow earthquakes (that is, less than 50km in depth, greater than magnitude 6.5). Based on historical evidence, the Caribbean is expected to experience approximately one destructive tsunami, per century, generated by earthquakes occurring within the region."

Acknowledging that there is a wealth of information available, Mr. Alleyne urged Barbadians to visit the website http://www.weready.org/ for more on tsunami, earthquake and hurricane preparedness. "We need to take this seriously, it can happen to us and we must be prepared," the Disaster preparedness official maintained.

tblackman@barbados.gov.bb

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