Dec. 28, 2004 With the estimated death toll in Asia from Sunday's 9.0 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami currently approaching that of the entire population of St. Thomas or St. Croix, residents across the region need to know the same thing could happen here.
"We are definitely a high-risk area. Not as high as the Pacific, but the same as the Indian Ocean," University of the Virgin Islands physics professor Roy Watlington said Tuesday.
And like the countries so hard hit, the territory has no tsunami warning system.
The issue is on the front burner thanks to Sunday's events, but Watlington said efforts were already ongoing to develop a system.
He said it's a matter of installing sensors on the sea floor, a project that will take cooperation among Caribbean nations and effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, even if the system warns residents tsunamis are coming their way, they will still only have five to seven minutes to get out of the way before one hits.
He said the tsunami may not arrive as a large towering wave like those seen in the movies but rather a fast rising of the water level. If you don't move fast, you'll find yourself losing your footing. You may be hit by floating debris. And when the water recedes, you could be sucked out to sea.
Therefore, Watlington said, the territory needs to develop tsunami evacuation routes, perhaps install a siren system and educate residents on what to do.
He said that posting evacuation route signs might not be popular with people in the territory's tourism industry since it might alarm visitors, but Watlington said with the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in the news, the industry may be more receptive.
Beverly Nicholson, president of the V.I. Hotel Association, said the time is right to review procedures. She said it was premature to commit to the idea of tsunami evacuation route signs, but agreed it was worth evaluating.
Watlington said that most tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, with volcanoes lagging far behind, but it takes an earthquake of a about a 6.2 magnitude on the Richter Scale or an underground slide caused by an earthquake to create a tsunami.
"And just because it's a 6.2, you still have a very small chance of getting a tsunami," he said.
Of course, residents shouldn't wait around for reports on the number. Watlington said if signs start falling off buildings or things are toppling over, head for the hills until it's clear the danger is over.
"Don't think about going out and surfing or picking up shells," Harold Baker, who heads the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, advised.
While most of the earthquakes that shake the territory fall far below the 6.2 threshold, the 1867 tsunami that emptied Charlotte Amalie Harbor shows the territory's vulnerability.
The same tsunami caused a U.S. battleship, the U.S.S. Monongahela, to be washed a quarter-mile inland from its anchorage in Frederiksted on St. Croix, according to Bruce Potter, co-founder of the Island Resources Foundation.
Watlington said a 1918 tsunami killed hundreds in Puerto Rico. It also hit the Virgin Islands, but did not cause any deaths. A smaller tsunami hit in 1946.
"If we had sensors we would have noticed one from the earthquake in the Dominican Republic a few weeks ago," he said.
Watlington said the Virgin IslandsPuerto Rico area is particularly vulnerable because of the Puerto Rican trench and the Virgin Islands Basin, an area that lies between St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.
He said that if that 1867 tsunami hit today, the damage would be catastrophic.
"There would be 12,000 people at Havensight, 12,000 people in downtown Charlotte Amalie, and cruise ships with all those … people. A lot of people are going to be hurt," he said.
Additionally, areas like Addelita Cancryn Junior High School and Paul M. Pearson Gardens, both on St. Thomas, are built on filled land, which can liquefy in an earthquake or could be submerged in a tsunami.
"Schools should not be built at sea level," Watlington said.
He said the St. Thomas jail, a high-rise building on the waterfront, might not be stable enough to withstand a tsunami.
Baker said that more emphasis needs to be placed on natural dangers like earthquakes and tsunamis rather than just focusing on hurricanes.
He said the region is experiencing a swarm of small earthquakes. On Dec. 11, a larger one, reported as anywhere from a 4.5 to a 5.7 depending on the agency, shook the territory.
"This should serve as a wake-up call," Baker said.
The University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez and the National Earthquake Center in Colorado keep tabs on earthquakes in this region. They send out earthquake alerts, which can provide a warning when an earthquake strong enough to cause a tsunami happens too far away to be felt in this region. However, the University of Puerto Rico is not funded to operate round-the-clock.
Watlington belongs to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission for the Caribbean and Adjacent Regions as well as its subgroup on tsunamis. The group is pushing to create the warning system for the Caribbean and Florida.
He said the Pacific Ocean, which is very vulnerable to earthquakes, has tsunami sensors installed.
"I think the effort has been so concentrated on the Pacific, they're unable to think outside the box," George Maul, chairman of the Intergovernmental organization and the department of marine and environmental systems at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, added.
He said that Sunday's tsunami has generated a lot of interest in a tsunami warning system for the Caribbean and Florida regions, but he fears it will be short lived.
"I noticed some people getting religion all of a sudden," he said.
He said he's pushed for 11 years for such a system with no results. He said he wrote to every member of the U.S. Congress, but only heard back from two representing Florida.
He said that population and development in coastal areas, including the Caribbean, continues to increase. This means that tsunamis will affect an increasingly larger number of people should they occur.
VITEMA offices have numerous pamphlets about earthquakes and tsunamis as well as hurricanes. They are located in the AQ Building across the street from Nisky Shopping Center on St. Thomas, off Queen Mary Highway near Queste Verde Condominiums on St. Croix, and downstairs from the Public Works Department office on Route 104 near the Intersection with Centerline Road on St. John.
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