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Are we prepared as a nation for a tsunami?


Fri, Sept 28, 2012

Barely three weeks ago, on September 5 to be exact, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Inadvertently, a tsunami warning was issued for countries bordering the Caribbean Sea, including St Vincent and the Grenadines, but was cancelled shortly afterwards. Had the earthquake been on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, it could very well have generated a tsunami; thank God it did not happen.{{more}}

If the earthquake generated a tsunami of a significant size, coastal areas in St Vincent and the Grenadines could have been flooded out and lives lost, because we DO NOT HAVE A TSUNAMI ALERT SYSTEM in place, and we have never carried out a simulated evacuation in preparation for a tsunami, so we could have been caught as ‘sitting ducks’. One would have thought that this experience could have taught us a lesson and that at least some public announcements would have been made by the relevant authority to the general public about what to do if you live in a coastal area and a tsunami warning was issued.

Let us look at Kingstown (with the largest population density). We have the Anglican school less than 200 feet away from the sea, the Financial complex even closer, the Customs & Excise Dept. , NIS building, cruise ship and ferry berth, just to name a few that house more than 100 staff, students, and general public at any given time. What would have happened if a real tsunami was on its way, … it was during a normal work/school day, … it would have been mass confusion and more persons could have been injured or killed in the stampede than what the tsunami may have claimed.

So, where do we go from here; what lessons have we learned? Well, to avoid being engulfed and swept away by a tsunami, means getting to high ground, using the shortest safe route. Secondly, orderly evacuations must be practiced and safe routes to high ground identified and clearly marked. Thirdly, and most importantly, there must be a warning siren to alert the general public that a tsunami is on its way.

Warning sirens must be installed in each coastal community throughout SVG, including the resort islands. These sirens must be programmed with a special tone, signalling that a tsunami is approaching. These sirens must be tested in every community once a month at a particular time, so that the public can be familiar with this warning. Safe routes to high ground must be kept clear of encroaching vegetation and schools must conduct a fire drill once per term, where orderly evacuation is practised. All these practices can lead to a reduction in the loss of life if/when threatened by these large destructive waves.

About a year ago, NEMO convened a one-day meeting where stakeholders brainstormed and came out with several workable strategies, including public information and simulated evacuations, targeting schools and communities that border our coastline. To date, nothing further has been done with regard to public information as it relates to tsunami evacuations.

Historically, tsunamis generated by earthquakes seldom reach over 100 feet when approaching land, so what we need to keep in mind is that relative safety from these monstrous waves means getting to an elevation over 300 feet above normal sea level, quickly and safely. Tsunamis generated by falling meteors can generate much larger waves, especially near the impact zone, but such occurrences are very rare, but not impossible.

The RRL is scheduled to stage a tsunami warning simulation for radio operators in Union Island in mid October. This activity is part of the field training for these radio operators who earned their radio licence earlier this year. This training activity will be purely a communications exercise, but will also involve marking out an escape trail to high ground for the students who attend the Union Island Secondary School.

Tsunami warnings are also important for ferry boat operators, ships and the maritime community in general. For them, the escape is to go to deep open water. Let us not be caught as ‘sitting ducks’, but let us all move to the next level of preparedness by getting the necessary electronic sirens installed, as well as public education programs going. Knowing what to do in a crisis helps to reduce casualties and loss of life. Failure to prepare means to prepare to fail and falter.


Submitted by Donald De Riggs
– Director/Secretary RRL Inc.
Emergency Communications specialist.