SAN JUAN --
Tsunamis in the Caribbean? Who knew? Who even suspected?
tsunamis, massive tidal waves triggered by earthquakes or volcano
eruptions, have been occurring in the region long enough to have
earned the local nickname of El Peligro Olvidado, Spanish for The
Since the middle
of the 19th century, it turns out, they have caused more deaths in
the Caribbean than hurricanes.
seismologists who track tsunami activity have known of the threat
for decades, it was rarely discussed until December
The tsunami that
pummeled Southeast Asia that month left 170,000 dead and missing in
the Indonesian province of Aceh alone.
Tsunamis and the
danger they pose were brought home in vivid detail at the recent
Caribbean Sustainable Tourism Conference here. The discussion was
part of an opening-day session on disasters -- how to plan for
them, manage them and react to them -- led by the Caribbean
Disaster Emergency Response Agency.
Most people in
the audience assumed the focus would be hurricanes, given the past
two devastating seasons. But in her opening remarks, Mariba Scott,
the Caribbean Tourism Organizations sustainable-tourism product
specialist, hinted that far more than tropical storms were on the
Even though we
tend to point to hurricanes, we see whats happening with the avian
flu and floods, which affect the Caribbean every year, Scott said.
More and more, we see a significant amount of climate change, and
we have to pay attention to that area.
Jeremy Collymore, the CDERAs coordinator and moderator of the
session, said that generating awareness of any potential disaster
is the critical first step in managing hazard risks in the
The Caribbean has
had significant losses in the last 10 years that appear to be on
the increase and have set back development, Collymore
He was alluding
to the increase in hurricanes that were Category 3 or higher in
each decade since 1970, growing from 15 storms between 1970 and
1979 to 25 between 1990 and 1999. Since 2000, there have been 19
hurricanes that were Category 3 or higher.
We will have more
in the next two decades, Collymore said.
unsettling but not unexpected news. Far more surprising was the
message delivered by Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, director and
assistant researcher of the Puerto Rico Seismic Network.
The Caribbean is
highly vulnerable to the threat of tsunamis, she said.
Referring to the
tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in December 2004,
Hillebrandt-Andrade said, There wasnt an adequate warning system in
place. No one was prepared. We have been working for years toward
the development of a tsunami plan in the Caribbean. We can no
longer ignore this potential danger.
That was not
welcome news to Caribbean tourism officials and government
representatives, who grapple with complex issues affecting 37
different island countries. Now they had to add tsunamis to their
Hillebrandt-Andrade has for years been the lone voice
calling for the development of a Caribbean tsunami alert and
preparation plan. She may have finally found an audience willing to
She peppered her
talk here with charts and graphs, including one slide that
graphically illustrated the number of tsunamis that have struck in
the Caribbean since 1846.
create tsunamis, but tsunamis are much less frequent than
earthquakes, she explained. Tsunamis are tidal waves usually caused
by an underwater earthquake or volcanic eruption, but not all tidal
waves -- defined as an unusually high sea wave that sometimes
follows an earthquake -- become tsunamis.
outlined a compelling story. From 1842 to 1946, more than 11,000
people in the Caribbean died as a result of tsunamis. The Dominican
Republic suffered the single largest toll in the region with 1,865
deaths in 1946. Today, conditions are ripe for a tsunami because of
climate and warm water, said Hillebrandt-Andrade.
percent of all tsunamis occur in the Caribbean region.
people in Puerto Rico live in a tsunami flood zone.
On any given
day in the Caribbean, more than 1 million vacationers are at a
beach, according to an estimate by the National Weather
Where are the
sirens? Hillebrandt-Andrade asked. Where are the signs? Where are
the emergency plans? Do hotels know what to tell their guests
regarding tsunamis? Do governments have plans?
however, that the process is under way to make the region
tsunami-ready. A Caribbean Tsunami Warning System is taking shape,
thanks to a Unesco directive issued in June 2005 that called for
the development of such a plan.
The first meeting
was held in Barbados last January when four working groups were
established to assess and research tsunami risks, develop
monitoring and detection systems and create a network of seismic
centers in the Caribbean to dispense warning information within two
minutes of an earthquake.
deep-water ocean buoys have been sunk in critical areas in the
Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean to help in the quick detection of
that each Caribbean country have an information center in operation
24 hours a day, seven days a week that could receive and
disseminate tsunami bulletins quickly. To date, only Suriname has
set up such a facility, and Barbados has created an International
Information Center on Tsunamis. Puerto Rico has erected 250 signs
in English and Spanish that illustrate tsunami evacuation routes
and areas of danger.
The goal is to
have the entire region tsunami-ready, like Hawaii is, she
crucial. Hillebrandt-Andrade estimated that the cost of such a plan
is approximately $41 million for the Caribbean region, with the
bulk of it going to studies and research on coastal populations,
evacuation routes, response and recovery plans and education and
reporter Gay Nagle Myers, send e-mail to [email protected].