The Caribbean States and adjacent regions participated on 11 March in their annual tsunami preparedness exercise, set up under the aegis of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO), as they commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake in Japan, which caused a deadly and devastating surge on the north-eastern coast of the island of Honshu, leading to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Countries bordering the North-East Atlantic, the Mediterranean and adjacent seas took part in a similar exercise from 8 to 10 March.
The purpose of the exercise was to assess local tsunami response plans, increase preparedness for such events and improve overall coordination. The exercise also intended to contribute to the objectives of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, launched on 1 January 2021 under the aegis of IOC-UNESCO.
"Making 100% of tsunami-prone communities tsunami-ready and resilient is an ambitious goal necessary for the survival of all. This exercise should therefore make it possible to test the procedures of the tsunami warning system and identify the operational strengths and weaknesses of the Caribbean countries."
Vladimir Ryabinin, IOC-UNESCO Executive Secretary
The last two tsunamis in the Caribbean Sea hit Haiti in 2010 and Honduras in 2018. Over the past 500 years, 75 tsunamis have occurred in the Caribbean. This year's exercise, entitled Caribe Wave 21, simulated two earthquakes in Jamaica in the Lesser Antilles. Mock messages were issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) and sent to participating countries.
From the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America in the west to the Lesser Antilles in the east, from Cuba in the north to Colombia and Venezuela in the south, the coastal populations of the Caribbean are particularly vulnerable to tsunamis. While the 2019 exercise brought together nearly 800,000 people, the number of participants in 2020 was eight times lower (103,000) as a result of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Emergency management authorities in each affected State established the level of participation and public involvement in the exercise.
Media, schools, businesses, religious organizations and families were encouraged to register their participation in this new exercise, while respecting coronavirus guidelines. Civil protection authorities also had the possibility of carrying out different types of exercises, including an actual evacuation.
Regional and national ocean tsunami warning systems must maintain a high level of preparedness so that all actions essential to people’s safety can be triggered in a timely manner. Indeed, there must be an immediate response to sudden and evolving natural disasters, such as tsunamis. To maintain a high level of preparedness, national tsunami warning centres and civil protection authorities must regularly test their emergency response procedures through practice. This includes ensuring that vital communication links are operational, that response personnel are fully aware of their role and able to act with the utmost urgency during such an event. In case of an alert, people on average only have 30 minutes to react.
Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, Director of the Caribbean Programme of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and coordinator of the exercises, emphasizes that tsunami-ready communities can receive Tsunami Ready recognition: “Tsunami Ready communities must prepare tsunami prevention and action plans. In the absence of recent tsunamis in the region, conducting these exercises remains an excellent way to keep citizens and government officials on their toes.”
A tsunami is caused by a submarine or coastal earthquake occurring at a depth of less than 50km. and having a magnitude of at least 6.5 on the Richter scale. Earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 8.7, such as the one in Japan on 11 March 2011 and the one in Sumatra on 26 December 2004 (9.2), cause major tsunamis leading to flooding along the coasts.
For more information, please contact:
Alison Brome, IOC-UNESCO Caribbean Tsunami Information Centre