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Hawkbill Turtle

What to do if a Tsunami strikes

by Alake Pilgrim

Be prepared

  • Find out the location of tsunami hazard areas near where you live, work or visit
  • Know the height of your street above sea level and its distance from the coast
  • Plan and practice evacuation routes from risk areas
  • Assemble a Disaster Supplies Kit and keep it accessible
  • Pay attention to all weather advisories and disaster warnings


  • Be alert to any warning signs such as strong earthquakes, the ocean receding, loud noises or fleeing animals
  • Leave property behind and go to high ground inland as soon as possible
  • Keep informed via battery-operated radio


  • Try getting into as high and secure a position nearby as possible
  • Look out for large, crushing objects that may be propelled by the water


  • Do not return to coastal areas until advised to do so by the authorities
  • Avoid power lines, debris, unstable structures and bodies of water
  • Avoid drinking water that has not been purified

Early warning. The Indian Ocean catastrophe demonstrates that tsunami education and early warning are essential if the Caribbean is to reduce our risk of disaster. In light of this, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), through the Intergovernmental Co-ordinating Group for the Caribbean and Adjacent (ICG-CARIBE EWS), is coordinating the establishment of a Tsunami Early Warning System for the Caribbean as well as countries in Central and South America. The system comprises four main steps: 1) detecting possible sources of tsunamis e.g. earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, 2) detecting whether ocean waves were generated by monitoring water levels, 3) communicating this information to 24-hour “focal points” on each island, such as meteorological offices or police stations and, 4) sending out warnings from the focal points to vulnerable communities via sirens, phones and media broadcasts.

Initially, one Regional Warning Centre will be established to coordinate the system. The University of Puerto Rico and the Venezuelan Foundation for Seismology (FUNVISIS) are each bidding to host this centre. In the interim, the IOC has set up four working groups to ensure that the Warning System gets up and running. The groups are responsible for Tsunami Monitoring, Disaster-Preparedness, Hazard-Mapping and Vulnerability, Warning Guidance and Communication.

The Guardians. “You all putting in cable?” was a question posed to the staff of UWI’s Seismic Research Unit by curious observers during the installation of a satellite dish on their headquarters in St. Augustine, Trinidad. The dish is in fact a Very Small Aperture Satellite (VSAT) terminal that will facilitate real time transmission of data from five seismic stations.
The SRU is playing a leading role in establishing this System as part of the ICG-CARIBE EWS team. The Unit is one of several regional agencies that will be responsible for the first leg of the system that is, monitoring the seismic activity that could generate tsunamis and communicating this information to the relevant groups. With a network of sixty seismic stations in the Eastern Caribbean, the SRU is well-placed to fulfill this responsibility.

Accurately identifying the large earthquakes that can cause tsunamis, while transmitting and processing the data fast enough to provide early warning, required a technology upgrade for the Unit. This was made possible through the generous support of the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) and the Government of Trinidad and Tobago. The US$249,680 grant enhanced the monitoring stations on St. Kitts, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Trinidad and Tobago. The SRU also worked with the US Geological Survey (USGS) to install three similar stations in Barbados, Grenada and Barbuda. When the entire project is completed over the next two years, each seismic station will be able to detect and report potential tsunami-generating earthquakes in about three minutes.

Education and empowerment. In June, the SRU trained representatives from the 24-hour focal points who will alert vulnerable communities of approaching tsunamis. This is one of a series of workshops for participants in the Tsunami Warning System. The Unit is also working closely with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA), which received funding from the USAID to coordinate public education on tsunamis. Mrs. Stacey Edwards, Education and Outreach Officer at the SRU, outlined their strategies for sharing information with the wider community. These include public lectures and school visits, a new website with a section focused on tsunamis, information material, exhibitions and educator kits. In addition to expanding their crowded physical facilities, Dr. Robertson reveals the Unit’s hopes to develop a Learning Resource area for visitors, with multimedia presentations on earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis.

Saving our lives. “Everything that we do impacts on people’s lives.” For this reason, Dr. Robertson encourages The University, private sector, NGO’s and governments to make more use of the SRU’s resources and expertise. Support for the Unit’s educational outreach, as well as funding for staff, research and technology, can go a long way toward mitigating disasters in the region. This is a goal that is personally important to members of the SRU’s diverse team, many of whom hail from the islands.
For all of us connected to the Caribbean, the danger is close to home. A lot still needs to be done by the IOCARIBE coordinators, but we all have work to do. After all, these are our lives. So it is up to us to ensure that we learn the lessons, listen to the warnings and above all, get prepared.