Tsunami drill shows gaps in Caribbean preparedness
Wednesday, March 23, 2011; 8:25 PM
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A U.N.-organized tsunami drill Wednesday tested the preparedness of Caribbean governments for a disaster that has struck the region several times in the last 150 years.
Thirty-three governments participated in the exercise, and several reported gaps in their emergency response plans.
Dominican Republic officials noted the lack of evacuation plans.
Officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands were surprised that radio stations were able to broadcast an alert in Spanish but not in English and that the emergency broadcast signal was weak.
"That's one of the things we're looking into," said Noel Smith, director of the islands' emergency management agency.
U.N. officials said the exercise simulated a tsunami that could be generated by a 7.6-magnitude earthquake. The drill targeted government agencies, although some governments got residents involved.
In Puerto Rico, dozens of citizens complained that they never heard the sirens meant to alert them. The U.S. National Weather Service has deemed only 11 of the island's 44 coastal municipalities ready for a tsunami.
There were successes.
Emergency management workers in the Bahamas successfully issued an alert by text message to 300 officials across the island chain, said Commander Stephen Russell at the emergency management agency.
Ronald Jackson, director of Jamaica's emergency management office, said local agencies worked to improve staffers' disaster preparedness skills with training sessions rather than stage the drill. He cited a lack of resources.
Juan Manuel Mendez, director of emergency operations in the Dominican Republic, said the country aims to draw up evacuation plans as well as evaluate buildings and infrastructure that could be damaged by a tsunami.
At least nine tsunamis have hit the Caribbean since the mid-1800s, killing more than 3,500 people, said Ron Trumbla, a spokesman for the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The most recent tsunamis include one that hit Puerto Rico in 1918, killing 140 people, and two tsunamis that struck the Dominican Republic in 1946, causing 1,865 deaths. A tsunami caused by last year's devastating earthquake in Haiti killed seven people in the fishing town of Petit Paradis.
The full results of the tsunami exercise will be available Friday, said Bernardo Aliaga, a spokesman with UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.