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Tsunami ready

by Julia Rawlins-Bentham

tsunamieffectBarbados will test its readiness to respond to a tsunami Wednesday, March 20.

The stage is already set, and all systems are expected to spring into action when the country joins with 34 of its Caribbean neighbours to take part in Caribe Wave 2013 with a table top exercise at the Department of Emergency Management and a functional exercise in St. John.

Acting Director of the Coastal Zone Management Unit, Dr. Lorna Inniss, explained that Caribe Wave was a regional initiative of the Inter-governmental Coordination Group. She added that it was the second time Barbados was participating in such an exercise, the first time being in 2011.

She noted that the 2011 event saw the island conducting a national orientation exercise with the first responders, those responsible for warning and scientists like those at the Coastal Zone Management Unit, and provided a wealth of information.

“The Caribe Wave 2013 exercise for Barbados has gone a step further… [For] this exercise now, we are not doing an orientation exercise, we are doing a table top exercise where we will actually have a map that depicts a tsunami scenario that has been pitched regionally, the height of the waves that would be coming onto the shore in Barbados, and where would be the areas that would be mostly affected,” Inniss explained.

She added that this scenario would assist officials in developing a series of other scenarios to look at the possible effects on tourism, businesses, coastal manufacturing the Bridgetown Port, shipping, boating, possible casualties, and how mass casualty situations are handled.

However, this year’s exercise will also encompass a community event for the first time held in St. John.

“For this initial activity we have chosen to work with the St. John District Emergency Organisation. They already have a regional warning system that they set up themselves.

“Once they receive the warning they can disseminate it to the various key persons in the community to ensure that those at risk know that there is an event occurring… We are working with the community to begin testing their readiness for something like this,” the acting director said, adding that the functional exercise would be replicated around the island at a later date.

However, Inniss urged all Barbadians to become engaged at some level. During the event, she said: “You will hear clips on the news, radio and TV. As the simulation develops there will be communiques coming out of the operations centre. People can stay informed on what is happening as if it was a real event given where they are at the point in time, and what they would do to help themselves and one other person.”

The CZMU head noted that a lot of preparation had gone into getting Barbados to the level it was at now in relation to tsunamis and tsunami education.

Much of the work was done through the public education programme launched in 2011, which was designed to begin the discussion on what a tsunami was as it was not something that Barbadians were accustomed to. “We have gone past that point now. Barbadians know quite well what a tsunami is, and what causes it. They have seen some events in recent years and they are learning more and more,” Inniss said.

She added the “trick” was now to take the public education programme to the next level – what to do after the warning was received, and how to respond appropriately depending on where you are.

“You may have parents or a housewife sitting at home and their children are at school [when the warning is received]. Do you decide I must get to my child even though the children may be safe in school because the teachers know what to do and they take the children to safety?

“These are some of the strong [educational] messages that a national public education programme would want to develop,” she said.

The Public Awareness and Education sub-committee of the Preparedness, Readiness and Resilience working group of the Technical Standing Committee on Coastal Hazards will be responsible for educating the public about these matters.

Chaired by the BGIS, the PAE has already extended its reach throughout St. John schools, with a Moonlight movie night on the Gall Hill Hardcourt in Gall Hill, the creation of a mascot through a competition in public and private primary schools, fliers, radio, television and newspapers messages and a east coast bus tour designed to highlight the dangers. This comes as a part of its mandate to educate the local population and visitors.

Inniss noted that people were already commenting on the ongoing efforts. “They realise that this is something that will not go away, and should not go away from generation to generation. From now on, I expect that we will see the ads just like we see the ads at the beginning of the hurricane season reminding us of what we are supposed to do. We would want to remind the public on what they are supposed to do [in the event of a possible tsunami],” she said.

However, warning the population is equally as important as the educational process. Dr. Inniss explained that being able to warn the entire country about a possible tsunami would require a robust communications system.

She disclosed that the Government of Barbados was currently working to develop the components of a very robust national warning system that would allow for every single resident and visitor to receive a warning. “The public education programme would teach them how to respond once they receive it,” she said.

At the regional level, efforts are also under way since 2006 for the Caribbean to develop a regional early warning system to protect the economies of the 34 countries in the wider region.

Inniss added that Barbados participated in the exercise at the regional level as such cooperation was essential to having an effective and functioning warning system.

“If the tsunami waves occur up by the US [United States] or across by Jamaica, the Dutch Antilles, or down by Venezuela or Trinidad, and the waves are coming towards us, they would hit a sensor in somebody else’s territorial water or exclusive economic zone before they get to us [Barbados], and we need that information,” Inniss explained.

She stressed that it was that level of cooperation at the regional level that started the establishment of an early warning system.

“We have been doing that over the last six years – developing these regional networks so that we are able to detect in less than one minute the advent of an earthquake in the Caribbean,” she added.

The next step is to develop a density of sea level stations so that wherever a tsunami wave begins, information is collected in less than five minutes. Any messages of a possible tsunami will be received from the Regional Warning Centre and sent to Barbados’ national warning focal point, the Barbados Meteorological Service.

This early warning system is expected to feature heavily when the island participates in Caribe Wave 2015.

“Whether it is sirens on the beach, receiving text messages, getting emails or faxes…, radio or TV interrupts, we want the system to be completely in place and ready to be tested in 2015,” Inniss stated.

She added the PAE would have two years to implement a strategy on how people should respond to early warnings.

“In 2015 what I want to see is that we go to a national exercise where we choose six or seven different communities on different coasts and have an element of evacuation involved in the exercise,” she said.

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