Post-earthquake tsunami scare in the Caribbean highlights shaky range of preparedness

Screenshot of a graphic from a YouTube video, illustrating the areas affected by the M7.6 earthquake that struck parts of the Caribbean and Central America on January 9, 2018

KINGSTON, Jamaica — “Nature has warned us. We need to take heed,” said Jamaican radio talk show host Cliff Hughes on his morning programme less than 12 hours after a magnitude 7.6 undersea earthquake struck off the coast of Honduras on January 9.

For approximately one hour, authorities issued a tsunami warning for Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, as well the coasts of Mexico and Central America, but was subsequently lifted.

The magnitude of the quake was stronger than the tremblor that devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010, killing around 200,000 people (which actually produced a tsunami).

News alerts went out from various regional entities on social media, but the earthquake hit at shortly before 10:00 p.m. local time, when many had already gone to bed:

A small tsunami was recorded in the Cayman Islands.

Tsunami warnings in action

Many Jamaican residents only heard about the earthquake when awoken by anxious messages from overseas.

At least one Jamaican community of Old Harbour Bay does have a pilot tsunami warning in place with some residents evacuating.

In Puerto Rico, where authorities also briefly issued a tsunami warning, citizens were similarly caught off guard.

Puerto Rico is still suffering from major infrastructural damage following Hurricane Maria last year, and its tsunami warning system was officially out of action.

On the Caribbean coast of Belize, anxiety rose as the sea appeared to retreat. One Belizean bravely traversed coastal areas, posting live videos online, noting that police were clearing affected areas.

Ironically, the earthquake took place on Earthquake Awareness Week in Jamaica and other islands.

However, there were concerns raised about regional communications protocols when a tsunami warning is issued. In Haiti, at least, a system is in place, but in Jamaica government agencies lacked a strong online presence.

Finding humour and solutions in a serious situation

Despite the scare, there was still time for the usual Caribbean humour.

Marvia Lawes, a prominent Jamaican religious figure, tried hard to see the funny side but knew the situation was serious:

“…tsunami warning and Jamaica in the same sentence… and it’s suddenly not so funny anymore… I want to know, now what? How will these alerts be communicated to the citizenry that’s not on social media, that lock off dem [their] radio at nights or [are] in other ways disconnected from the late-breaking news? Civil defence sirens in every town fi [will] wake up people? This is quite sobering I tell you.”

As discussions continue in mainstream and social media, the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), received suggestions to increase their online and social media presence.

In many Caribbean countries with a history of earthquakes, there were indeed lessons to be learned.

This article written by Emma Lewis originally appeared on Global Voices on January 12, 2018



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