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St. John Meeting Draws Attention to Tsunamis

March 29, 2005 – If you hear a tsunami is coming, "run like hell" uphill, advised University of the Virgin Islands professor Roy Watlington in his address to emergency coordinators from various government agencies on St. John, and V.I Territorial Emergency Management Agency staff.
Watlington is at the forefront of efforts to develop a tsunami warning system for the Virgin Islands and the Caribbean.
Addressing the group at the Westin, he said that while the Nov. 18, 1867 tsunami caused damage in the Virgin Islands, today's increased population and development, along with the territory's extensive tourism infrastructure would lead to a catastrophic situation should a tsunami hit.
He pointed out a slew of buildings located along the St. Thomas waterfront that would be in harm's way. "Government offices, the legislature," he said, ticking them off.
He said retirement homes near the water, such as the Lucinda Millin Home on St. Thomas, shouldn't have the first floor occupied because residents can't move fast enough in the event of a tsunami.
He pointed out that the territory's tourism product would suffer greatly because the beaches, the aquarium, the Havensight cruise ship docks, and sailing would all be wiped out.
Additionally, Watlington said, Hovensa, V.I. Water and Power facilities, many schools, some grocery stores, and the territory's airports would be inundated.
"The hospital is probably out of reach," he said of Roy L. Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas.
Watlington said that much of Cruz Bay is at risk.
He said the 1867 tsunami had a wave height of 21 feet, and went one-quarter of a mile inland. Five minutes after the earthquake hit, he said waves could be seen on the horizon.
While Christiansted took some damage, the dense offshore reef provided some protection. He said that Charlotte Amalie, Coral Bay and Frederiksted got hit hard. "St. Thomas and St. John saw a big cresting wave, but in Frederiksted the water withdrew," he said, speaking about the various ways tsunamis strike.
In Frederiksted, the tsunami threw the U.S.S. Monongahela, a 2,078-ton sloop, up on the shore. While the tsunami caused problems, the outbreak of yellow fever that followed caused even more.
The earthquake happened in the Virgin Islands Basin, which sits between St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.
"It went out like a ring," Watlington said.
But the basin isn't the only earthquake risk. Watlington pointed out several nearby areas where undersea earthquakes occur.
He said the first key is education so people can save themselves should a tsunami hit, but pointed out several easily solvable things that stand in the way. For example, a fence sits between Addelita Cancryn Junior High School and the route across the highway to the hills above. "People are going to get trapped behind that fence," he said.
Traffic jams and hillsides covered with prickly catch-and-keep pose still further evacuation problems.
Watlington said the territory needs to develop communication links to get the word out. Additionally, he said the government needs to relocate schools and densely-occupied public buildings away from sea level.
"But realistically speaking, we're not going to move hotels," he said.
However, he said hotels can be designed so the lowest floors house fewer people. Additionally, buildings should have strong supports and breakaway walls on the lowest floors.
Watlington called on VITEMA to integrate its tsunami-warning program into existing programs because it would not be cost effective to assign an employee just to monitor tsunami threats.
Alvis Christian, VITEMA's deputy director on St. John, said the agency is urging government agencies to update emergency plans to include tsunamis.
"And where does everybody in Cruz Bay go?" Christian wanted to know.
Ira Wade, deputy Public Works director, suggested that VITEMA have a "grand production" to inform residents about what to do should a tsunami hit.

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