Monday, April 16th 2011 – On Wednesday March 28th, the Department of Disaster Management executed their annual full scale Tsunami Exercise to test the Territory’s Early Warning and Notification Systems and to afford organizations and Government Departments the opportunity to test their own plans and procedures. Since 2009, these annual exercises have been taking place during the month of March, and are held in conjunction with other localities in the Northwest Atlantic.
Every year a different scenario is applied to allow countries to fully test their response to major earthquake events. We have been fortunate to receive the consistent support of the Puerto Rico Seismic Network (PRSN), the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, the West Coast Tsunami Warning Center and the United States Geological Survey to receive tsunami advisories, watches and warnings, and to be part of various studies to determine the historical evidence that exists in our islands to demonstrate that tsunamis have impacted the Virgin Islands. Recently, we learned of two events that caused significant over-wash on the island of Anegada and left evidence that linked these events to the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and an event that occurred sometime during the period 1400 to 1500. Several instruments throughout the Territory serve to monitor the earthquake activity occurring in this part of the Region.
Historical records show that in 1867 an earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.5, occurred in the Anegada trough and generated two tsunamis and aftershocks that lasted 5 to 6 months. Eye witnesses describe a 4 to 6 meter wall of water impacting the islands, causing flooding and the destruction to of many boats and buildings. The 1967 Virgin Islands tsunami produced a 1.2 to 1.5 meter run-up and washed away most of the smaller buildings on Tortola’s coastlines. This clearly illustrates the damage caused in the past, and the potential for reoccurrence.
Over the past years, there has been significant investment in emergency communications and early warning systems to increase awareness of the tsunami risk in the Virgin Islands. Many of us remember the devastating Asian Tsunami of 2004 and, more recently, the Japanese Tsunami that unfolded before our eyes on television. We learned of the different ways in which people survived; many of whom remembered taking part in evacuation drills that had directed them to recognize tsunami warning signs/signals/alerts and move to higher ground. It is noted that there was some confusion by attendees as to the rendezvous point and DDM will take all steps necessary to inform the public of the agreed location in the event of a disaster or for future drills.
Last year the DDM tested school plans and undertook an extensive project to equip schools, clinics and Fire and Police Stations with Smart Radios to allow them to receive immediate notification from the DDM. While the many sporting activities held during the month of March did not allow many schools to participate in this year’s Exercise, the DDM is nonetheless continuing their School Safety Project and will be undertaking assessments of all schools in the coming months to offer Safe School certification to those who meet the necessary criteria.
We were particularly pleased to see the involvement of many Government Departments as well as Sunsail, Foot Loose and The Moorings in the recent exercise. But we continue to be concerned about the lack of participation in annual exercises by Private Sector organizations, particularly given the low level of preparedness that exists within this sector. It is important that, as a Territory, we understand the significant risks posed by natural hazards. We all need to be in a constant state of readiness to respond to any sudden or impending impact. We are therefore strongly urging each and every individual and organization to learn about the tsunami risk in the Region. Take some time to review the literature produced by the DDM Develop disaster management plans for your organizations and participate in the annual exercises to test your plans and procedures. The DDM has produced templates that can guide you in this process and their staff is available to provide the support that is needed in developing, reviewing and testing your plans.
Organizations have opportunities to test their plans and procedures regularly, especially during the 4th Friday of every month at 2:00pm, when the warning and notification systems are tested. Let us work together to ensure that we are all well prepared for any hazard impact.