Eyes on the sea
by Julia Rawlins-Bentham
Life in Martin’s Bay, St. John is described by residents as a “luxury”. It boasts of a clear ocean front view, a fresh sea breeze and the sound of waves breaking on the shore. The crystal clear waters contain fish and other sea food fit for consumption by persons from ever persuasion.
It provides the perfect ocean view for homes built along its coast, an enticing backdrop for nearby businesses, and sets the atmosphere to one of relaxation for those just admiring its beauty and mystery.
But, as beautiful as the Martin’s Bay area may appear on the surface, some are quick to point out the lurking danger — heavy sea swells that sometimes threaten the very homes they live in.
“This year, we had strong winds and the swells would move in and suddenly a wave would come,” said retired Hydrologist at the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology, Frank Farnum.
The most recent of the sea swells occurred on January 14 when waves, between 12 and 15 feet, overflowed into the streets soaking those in their path, and causing minor damage to some residences.
Farnum added that the swells caused minor damage to his home located just 20 yards away from the ocean.
These dangers and how people should respond will be the focus when this year’s Caribe Wave 2013 exercise is staged in the area later this month.
Farnum explained that bad sea swells, like the ones experienced last month, were observed every 10 to 15 years.
“They originate from deep low pressure systems coming out of North America,” he said, likening it to the ripples that extended outward when a pebble was thrown into a pond.
He added that the whole idea of where swells were generated was not understood up to the 1950s.
“People did not recognise that they originated from low pressure systems,” he pointed out.
However, over the years, Farnum said residents learnt how to observe the changing tides at Martin’s Bay.
“We know it is not a tsunami because we observe what is happening and go on past experiences,” he said, noting that some swells overflowed into the road during some events.
But, they are cognisant that a tsunami could affect the area at any time. Farnum stressed that while residents learnt how to observe the waves, it was still important for them to know what to do in such an eventuality.
“We need to start with the children. It was the children in Indonesia that raised the alarm and got the people moving,” he recalled.
He advised that if people in the areas started seeing reefs and rocks which they had not seen before, then it was time to move to higher ground.
“How far a tsunami would reach, I do not know. But I suspect my house and all these within a 200 metre distance from the ocean would be in danger if a tsunami is generated in the northern Caribbean,” he cautioned.
He revealed that the landscape in Martin’s Bay had changed significantly over the years as the sea reclaimed houses and land along the popular stretch of road.
“Between 30 feet or 10 metres of land has been eroded over the years,” he pointed out, noting there was also a lot of erosion occurring in front of the popular Bay Tavern.
“My grandmother told me there was once a big pasture near there, but now it is just eroded all along the coast,” Farnum recalled, noting that he has lived in the area all his life.
Having lived in the area for 89 years, resident Fred Watson is well aware that the sea had taken away a lot of the beach.
Pointing to areas where houses once stood and boats were hauled up by fishermen, the senior citizen added: “The sea has affected the area every year. There were houses here and the sea moved them. Fourteen boats used to haul up here, but no longer, and all the pig pens were washed away with the high seas.”
Watson also pointed out that as a result of large swells, the water came right over the road.
Member of the St. John District Emergency Organisation, William King, also recalled that as a boy he saw the sea at Martin’s Bay extend into the road. He said a gabion bridge was built, but was destroyed by a north swell and had to be rebuilt.
Lamenting that last January’s sea swell caught many off guard, King expressed concern over the need for an early warning system for the island in general. However, he suggested that in the absence of an early warning system, residents should be educated about the dangers, and warned about the potential disaster via sirens or church bells.
“All over Barbados should be prepared and education should be key. The population should be more educated about what a tsunami is, and what it can do,” he said, noting that those living in Martin’s Bay were aware of the coastal hazard to some degree.
In addition, the St. John DEO and Community Disaster Response Team are ready to respond to any disasters occurring in the area by conducting search and rescue, first aid or damage assessment.
King added that the DEO kept a list of names and addresses of the elderly and physically challenged persons in the community, so they could receive assistance in the event of a disaster. That list, he said, was updated every January.
In the interim, for the people of Martin’s Bay, King has this advice: “Look and keep your eyes on the sea. You never know when something will happen.”