Waves of concern come with tsunami scare

By Marion Ali
Assistant Editor

Belizeans were faced with a double dose of potential disaster on Tuesday night when first, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale struck due east of Belize City and north of Honduras in the Caribbean Sea, rocking homes as far north as Corozal, and then triggering a tsunami warning that served as a good practice run for citizens and NEMO alike.

The tsunami scare was the more nerve-racking phenomenon of the two, mainly because Belize has not – at least in the last 100 years – experienced the wrath of a tsunami. This means that no one alive in Belize who heard the fire truck sirens continuously blaring in the coastal municipalities knew quite what it meant, unless they were in tuned to local radio, the weather channel or social media. When they eventually got wind of a possible tsunami, it became imperative then for people to listen to the advisories on what to do.

This particular tsunami threat gave Belizeans relatively ample time to seek shelter in buildings that had more than one flat; and in some cases, people even drove out of city limits in search of safer, higher ground away from the coastline.

The first advisory from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre indicated the tsunami would have reached our shores around 10:30 p.m., which would have been an hour and 41 minutes after the earthquake struck.

During this time, NEMO coordinators sprung into action, activated their emergency teams and opened all hurricane shelters for people whose homes were either too low for the expected 3 to 4-foot high waves expected to crash ashore, or were not structurally sound to withstand the force of the waves. The fire engines in every coastal town and in Belize City took to the streets with their sirens wailing non-stop to warn people of the tsunami threat. Most of the people took the warning and collected their families, prized possessions and bedding and headed for the shelters. Others ignored the alert and headed to the seaside to look at the receding sea water, which in some cases, had pulled back as far as 10 feet from the shoreline.

A second warning from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre informed that the wave would hit by 10:48 p.m., giving people even more time to reach sturdier, higher places of safety. Luckily for us, the wave never came and the warning was lifted at 10:56 p.m., giving people reason to breathe a sigh of relief and to return to their homes.

Had the earthquake triggered a stronger wave at its epicentre, the water at the shorelines would have receded much further back and the tidal wave that would have slammed ashore would have been destructive. Some tsunami experts say that it is cause for concern when the sea recedes to around 20 to 25 feet from the shoreline .

The earthquake itself struck when most people were still awake. No report of loss of life or destruction to property has been reported, as a result, but across the region, people reported that their homes shook and that glass windows rattled for about a minute. The epicentre was located about 125 miles north-northeast of Barra Patuca, Honduras, and 188 miles southwest of George Town, Cayman Islands, at a relatively shallow depth of 6.2 miles. Tsunami waves were projected as far out as 621 miles of the epicenter, and also included the coast of Jamaica, Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama, Cayman Islands, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

If the earthquake had occurred closer to shore, it would have likely triggered a stronger tsunami that would have not only come crashing in on coastal homes, but within a much quicker time after the earthquake. Some tsunamis are so powerful that they reach the shoreline within only a few minutes after the earthquake occurs.

Coordinator of NEMO, Retired Col. Shelton DeFour told the Reporter that the organization is continuously looking at ways to improve its efficiency. He informed that in 2017, tsunami simulation alerts were carried out in some of the coastal communities, and that plans are in place to attach loudhailers/megaphones to the fire engines to better alert people of the type of disaster the warning is about and what they should do to protect their families and properties.
DeFour explained that NEMO uses the resources available, such as the fire engines whose sirens wail continuously for a natural disaster, as opposed as the regular bursts when there is a fire. He said NEMO uses social and formal media and any other form of communication readily available to disseminate alerts and warning to people whose lives are threatened by disasters.

In response to a report that a working crew who were on a barge at sea were not given time to seek safety ashore, DeFour warned that it is illegal under labour laws for any employer to prevent an employee from seeking safety in times of emergency.

DeFour also advised mariners and any boat captain heading out to sea that there are basic maritime laws that should be adhered to for their own safety. These include ensuring that the boats are outfitted with life vests, proper lighting for night time detection, and commercial AM/FM radios to keep in tuned with the latest weather news or disaster warnings that are issued.
In retrospect, one can remember that the owners of the luxury vessel, the “Wave Dancer” were sued for several millions of dollars when 20 people died aboard during Hurricane Iris on the night of October 8, 2001. Reports were that the captains had refused to let the crew off the boat because the passengers were having a hurricane party on board.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transport has been asked to check all bridges to ensure that their structural integrity has not been compromised by the quake.

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