Barbuda faces greater tsunami threat due to lagoon breach

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By Elesha George

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A breach in Barbuda’s natural sea wall defence is predicted to pose a further challenge for residents should the threat of a tsunami emerge.

The sister island’s low elevation is a “concern” – and additionally so since 2017’s Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on its coastline, say disaster chiefs.

“Barbuda … is even more concerning now because the lagoon is still open and the opening has widened quite a bit. It means that the volume of water that will come in will be much more and so the height and distance inland will even be increased,” explained National Office of Disaster Services (NODS) directorPhilmore Mullin.

He said the island’s topography and how it is currently developed also poses a problem. Mullin suggested that authorities seriously consider constructing some multi-storey buildings so that people can evacuate upwards, as opposed to attempting to run away.

He made those comments, recognising NODS’ current inability to map out safe zones on the island. The director shared that the organisation had decided to halt tsunami drills in the absence of a validated model map, which would help identify safe areas.

“A tsunami threat for Antigua and Barbuda is very real. It is real because we haven’t had one in almost 200 years and we have a saying, ‘the further you get away from the last one, the closer you get to the next’ and if that is true, then we have to prepare,“ Mullin stressed.

Another concern for the organisation is the constant earthquakes occurring across the region.  The area between Trinidad and Venezuela, he said, “seems to be a hot bed for earthquakes these days”.

He pointed to a fault line that runs midway along Antigua going east, noting that a lot of the earthquakes that are felt in Antigua come from that.

“The entire fault line has been active. Up until five years ago, most of the activity was taking place in the line of sight with Martinique, and one day we felt an earthquake and when I checked my phone, I checked the location and it was exactly midway between Antigua and Barbuda.

“It means if the area was to generate a tsunami, from an earthquake, you’re looking at about a minute to three minutes’ arrival time on either side – Antigua and Barbuda,” Mullin said.

He shared that while the twin island state is most likely to be affected by a local tsunami, it does not rule out the possibility of activity from a tele tsunami. While local tsunamis occur close to the coastline and give very little warning, tele tsunamis originate from a source more than 1,000km away and offer a 20 minute or more time-lapse for evacuation.

Mullin made reference to one of the many earthquakes in Haiti in 2010 that generated tsunamis.

“The report study that was done of that particular event is very frightening,” he remarked, explaining that the damage was caused primarily by the high level of vulnerability of infrastructure.

“They’re saying that based on their study, [and] the amount of energy that is pent-up in that fault line, there will be another earthquake that will be just as strong, however it may not be on the Haiti side.

“It is that same fault line that runs all the way up to Port Royal in Jamaica and so they are saying, it might be on the Jamaica side and if that happens then we are going to have a problem,” he told OBSERVER media.

Meanwhile, former director of the Antigua Meteorological Service, Keithley Meade, is working as the national consultant for UNESCO’s Caribbean Tsunami Information Centre (CTIC) and shared that “more persons in the Caribbean have been killed by tsunamis than hurricanes”.

Meade has advised the public to head for higher ground if they feel an earthquake strong enough to knock them off their feet.

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