By David Singh
Geneva - The magnitude 4.0 earthquake recorded off the coast of Antigua on 11 May is "a warning that the Caribbean should prepare for a much more severe earthquake to come," says a leading expert.
Seismologist Joan Latchman of the Seismic Research Unit in Trinidad and Tobago said: "Caribbean islands lie in an area of relatively high earthquake activity and an earthquake of 8.0 can hit any day based on patterns previously recorded."
Last month, the Caribbean was encouraged to prepare for a devastating tsunami by the Intergovernmental Oceanic Commission (IOC) of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Wendy Watson-Wright, Assistant Director-General at IOC-UNESCO has also urged the Caribbean's 40 million people and its 22 million annual tourists to take the threat of a tsunami seriously as it is a case of "when and not if" the region will be struck by the giant waves triggered by earthquakes and volcanic activity.
The Caribbean's tsunami early warning system is expected to be in place by 2014 and will be located in Puerto Rico. It will enhance the region's ability to evaluate data and ensure that timely information is passed on to the authorities so they can advise the public.
At least 75 tsunamis have been recorded in the Caribbean over the past 500 years, with more than 3,500 deaths attributed to them, according to IOC-UNESCO. Within the region there are multiple fault segments and submarine features that could be the source of earthquakes and tsunamis. The perimeter of the Caribbean plate is bordered by no fewer than four major tectonic plates - North America, South America, Nazca, and Cocos.
"An earthquake in the northern part of the Caribbean could generate waves up to 40 feet (12.2 metres) high and threaten the lives of up to 35.5 million people living in coastal areas. Smaller waves could reach Florida, the Gulf of Mexico and as far north as New Jersey", according to the American Geophysical Union (AGU).
The risks of tsunamis in the eastern Caribbean are also increasing due to a submarine volcano Kick 'em Jenny, in the southern Grenadines, which is gradually evolving, stated the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) which cautioned that "We now consider the probability that Kick 'em Jenny will generate a significant tsunami within the next 50 years to be greater than 50 percent."
Last year at the end of March, 32 countries participated in the Caribbean's first full-scale tsunami warning exercise to test the early warning systems that the IOC began to put in place in 2005 to strengthen regional defences against such disasters. The test - CARIBE WAVE 11/LANTEX - was based on a fictional earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale and located off the coast of the US Virgin Islands.
Bernardo Aliaga Rossel, Technical Secretary of the Intergovernmental Coordination Group /Caribbean Early Warning Systems (Caribe EWS), said: "We've come a long way in five years. There's a lot of attention, public awareness and involvement by emergency agencies, national disaster offices.
"There is also political support for the early warning centre, particularly from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands and even from US President Barack Obama who sees the establishment of this system in Puerto Rico as protection of American interests in the Caribbean. The Governor of Puerto Rico has also committed US$6 million towards the establishment of the centre in this US territory. The risks faced by the overseas territories of European countries have even prompted donors to up their support for the tsunami system.
"There is evidently great interest in the issue. Up to 90 schools participated from the northern to the eastern Caribbean. CDEMA is actively involved while the Center for the Coordination of Natural Disasters Prevention in Central America (CEPREDENAC) has displayed great interest in the developments as have the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS)".
There are now 100 seismic stations contributing to national tsunami and seismic centres including the Seismic Research Centre. Sea level operators have increased from 14 four years ago to 38. They transmit signals every five minutes, according to Aliaga.
Much still remained to be done, cautioned Aliaga. "People still do not know how to react and what to do with warnings, and official warnings are still not up to scratch. Technical capacity has to be improved while big cities such as Santo Domingo and prime tourist destinations have to invest more in hazard assessment mapping."
Aliaga said it would be difficult to estimate the impact of a tsunami happening tomorrow. "It would depend on the strength, speed and location. And if one of the scale of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 [generated by a 9.2 magnitude earthquake] came along? Well, we have not envisaged that scenario as yet."
The countries and territories that participated in the first full-scale tsunami warning exercise in March last year were: Aruba, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, France (Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, Guyane), Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Netherlands (Bonaire, Saba, Saint Eustatius, Curacao and Saint Martin), Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, UK (Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos), the USA and Venezuela.
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