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Extreme Weather in The Caribbean Part 1: Seismic Events

USGS map of tectonic plates in the Caribbean Region. Caribbean islands are located where earthquakes frequently strike due to their location among tectonic plates and fault systems. (Photo courtesy of the United States Geological Survey website)

It is well-known that the Caribbean Region is prone to extreme weather events, most notably tropical cyclones. However, the Caribbean experiences other severe weather incidents besides hurricanes that can severely impact the USVI and nearby islands. Preparing for extreme weather events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis is vital.

This two-article series will highlight several severe weather events threatening the region and how to stay safe and prepared. This piece will focus on seismic activity, tsunamis in the Caribbean, and tips for staying safe.

The Education and Outreach Team at the University of the West Indies spoke to the Source about the potential for earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions in the Caribbean Region. The interview information for this article with the UWI team was reviewed by the Director of the Outreach Team at UWI’s Seismic Research Centre, Erouscilla Joseph.

“The UWI Seismic Research Centre is the official source of information on earthquakes and volcanoes in the English-speaking Eastern Caribbean. We currently provide a national seismological and volcanological service for contributing territories in the Eastern Caribbean, as well as support for tsunami warning and public education and awareness on geologic hazards,” explained Joseph.

“Our vision is to be the leading agency in the Eastern Caribbean for earthquakes, volcano, and tsunami monitoring and for the dissemination of information to mitigate the negative impacts of these hazards,” Joseph added.

Seismic Activity in the Caribbean 

Caribbean islands are situated where temblors frequently strike due to their location among tectonic plates and fault systems.

“The tectonic plates divide the Earth’s crust into distinct ‘plates’ that are always slowly moving. Earthquakes are concentrated along these plate boundaries,” according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

“Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are located at an active plate boundary between the North American plate and the northeast corner of the Caribbean plate. Plate movements have caused large magnitude earthquakes and devastating tsunamis,” according to the (USGS) website.

“We are in the seismically active region, and as such, we can expect damaging earthquakes to occur across the region,” said Joseph. “The primary threat for the USVI can come from the Puerto Rico region along with the seismic zone to the east of Antigua and Barbuda. These regions can produce large magnitude earthquakes (7+), and those can impact the USVI,” according to Joseph.

Based on historical data about the frequency of temblors, the Caribbean Region is currently at risk for the possibility of a large quake.

We are unable to predict earthquakes, but we can forecast the return period for earthquakes. Research has shown that earthquakes of magnitude eight and above occur in the region every ~100 years. The last event of this size occurred in 1843 close to Antigua and in 1766 for Trinidad,” noted Joseph. “Therefore, we are within the timeframe to expect a significant magnitude event. As such, we continue to urge persons to be vigilant and ensure, as far as possible, individual preparedness measures are in place.”

When an earthquake strikes, it is possible that tsunami waves may follow. The majority of tsunamis are triggered by earthquakes.

“A tsunami is a series of extremely long waves caused by a large and sudden displacement of the ocean, usually the result of an earthquake below or near the ocean floor. This force creates waves that radiate outward in all directions away from their source, sometimes crossing entire ocean basins,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Safety Information

It is crucial for individuals to be prepared for earthquakes and tsunamis and to know what to do before, during, and after a seismic event.

“There are different levels of preparedness for earthquakes. At the personal level, we encourage persons to have an emergency plan with their families and have emergency kits like those you have for hurricanes/tropical storms,” said Joseph.

Earthquake Safety Tips 

Regarding earthquake safety, UWI has put together a list of tips to review.

Graphic showing simple steps to follow during an earthquake to stay safe. (Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Natural Disasters and Severe Weather section)

Before an Earthquake 

Build your home in accordance with the recommended building codes. See your local disaster management office for details.

Bolt heavy furniture, water tanks, water heaters, gas cylinders, and storage units to a wall or floor.

Place the largest and heaviest items on lower shelves.

Emergency items such as canned foods, medication, flashlights, battery-operated radios, fire extinguishers, and a First Aid kit should be readily available and working properly.

All family members should know how to use this emergency equipment and should know how to turn off electricity, gas, and water using safety valves and main switches.

All family members should know what to do during an earthquake and practice these safety tips through regular drills.

During an Earthquake 

STAY CALM. DO NOT PANIC. BE ALERT.

If inside, stay inside, do not run out of the building.

If inside, get under a sturdy desk, table, or bed and hold on. Do not use elevators or stairs. Move away from windows, mirrors, glass doors, pictures, bookcases, hanging plants, and heavy objects.

If outside and there are no obvious signs of danger nearby, stay there.

If outside, stay away from glass buildings, electricity poles, and bridges.

If in a vehicle, do not stop on or under a bridge.

Always look for falling plaster, bricks, lighting fixtures, and other objects.

If trapped under debris:

  • Do not light a match.
  • Do not move about or kick up dust.
  • Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing.

Tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can locate you. Use a whistle if one is available. Shout only as a last resort. Shouting can cause you to inhale dangerous amounts of dust.

After an Earthquake

  • Check for broken gas lines and fires.
  • Check utilities and switch them off, if necessary.
  • Check your house for serious damage and evacuate if the house seems likely to collapse.
  • Be prepared for more earthquakes (aftershocks).
  • Stay away from landslide-prone areas.
  • Turn on the transistor radio for emergency news.
  • Do not light a match or turn on a light switch. Use a flashlight instead.
  • Never touch fallen power lines.
  • Do not go sightseeing. Leave the streets clear for emergency and rescue vehicles.
  • Do not attempt to move seriously injured persons unless they are in danger of further injury.

Tsunami Safety Tips

Regarding tsunami safety, the National Weather Service offers tips for staying safe before, during, and after a tsunami.

Powerful earthquakes can cause destructive tsunamis, and it’s important to recognize the natural signs of a potential tsunami. (Photo courtesy of the University of the West Indies website)

Before a Tsunami

  • Have multiple ways to receive warnings. Get a NOAA Weather Radio, sign up for text message alerts from your local government, and verify that your mobile devices receive wireless emergency alerts.
  • Make an emergency plan that includes plans for family communication and evacuation.
  • Map out routes from home, work, and other places you visit to access safe places on high ground or inland and outside the tsunami hazard zone. Your community may have identified evacuation routes and assembly areas. Plan to evacuate on foot if you can; roads may be impassable due to damage, closures, or traffic jams.
  • Put together a portable emergency kit. Include items you and your family (including pets) may need in an emergency. Prepare kits for work and cars, too.
  • If you have children in school in a tsunami hazard zone, find out the school’s plans for evacuating and keeping children safe.

If you are visiting the coast, find out about local tsunami safety. Your hotel or campground should have this information.

During a Tsunami

  • Stay out of the water and away from beaches and waterways.
  • Get more information from radio, television, or your mobile device (text or data).
  • If officials ask you to evacuate, go quickly to high ground or inland.
  • If you are in a tsunami hazard zone and receive a natural warning, a tsunami could arrive within minutes.
  • As soon as you can move safely, go quickly to high ground or inland. Do not wait for an official warning or instructions from officials.
  • If you are on the beach or near water and feel an earthquake of any size and length, go quickly to high ground or inland as soon as you can move safely.

If you are outside of the tsunami hazard zone and receive a warning, stay where you are unless officials tell you otherwise.

After a Tsunami

  • Stay out of the tsunami hazard zone until officials say it is safe. The cancellation of a warning does not mean the danger has passed.
  • Contact your family and loved ones. Let them know you are okay.
  • Stay out of any building with damage or water around it until a professional or official says it is safe.

Extreme Weather Preparedness

Preparation for extreme weather events like earthquakes and tsunamis is essential, just as it is important to be ready for tropical cyclones. Residents and visitors in the USVI are encouraged to stay updated on weather events on the V.I. Source Weather page and sign up for alerts from the National Weather Service and the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency.

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