The Caribbean is mobilizing 300,000 people for an epic tsunami drill

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If you happen to be sunbathing on a quiet Caribbean beach next week, don’t be alarmed if a helicopter flies overhead warning everyone to evacuate to higher ground.
It’s just a drill. A tsunami drill, actually, called Caribe Wave 2017, that will mobilize more than 300,000 people in 48 countries and territories in the Caribbean basin. The simulation will test the communication systems that connect those communities to the seismologists in Hawaii whose sensors and algorithms predict tsunamis. And perhaps more importantly, it will test the ability of local officials to get large numbers of people to drop what they are doing and move to safety.
Advertisements on local media make sure that teachers, bosses, and hotel waiters in each country know what’s coming. Local police and volunteers put on orange safety vests and direct traffic; choppers issue loudspeaker warnings. But some things can’t be replicated. Sometimes, tsunamis create weirdness along the seashore as the ocean recedes for long distances just before the waves roll up. The effect can be mesmerizing—and some people are killed when they wander down to the beach to pick up shells or explore the ocean floor right before the big wave hits.
If it sounds involved, it is: UNESCO distributes a 147-page handbook to local officials that details how the whole show will go down next week. The chain of communications starts at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii, which uses the US Geological Survey’s thousands of seismic sensors to estimate where and when a tsunami will hit. Each country’s emergency center receives that information, including wave heights and local maps of earthquake effects, through a dedicated satellite line, fax, or e-mail—even Tweets and texts.
“This exercise is meant to test that chain,” says Bernardo Aliaga, tsunami coordinator at UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission in Paris. “Some countries are more top down, the police will just give the order and evacuate the coastal zone. Other communities are organized through their local leaders to proceed in an orderly way through established routes.”
Some places—like the French island of Guadalupe—get involved big time. There, tens of thousands of schoolchildren, hotel guests, and government workers will (calmly) run, walk, or drive to higher ground on March 21 for the evacuation drill. On islands like the Bahamas, only a few emergency officials acknowledge receipt of the tsunami center warning.
While most visitors probably don’t think about the chances of a killer wave when booking a Caribbean vacation, they do happen. NOAA officials estimate tsunamis caused by earthquakes, landslides, or volcanic activity have killed 3,500 people since the mid-19th century, including a 1946 event that killed 2,000 people in the Dominican Republic and a 1918 Puerto Rico quake-spawned wave that killed 140. The Caribbean’s tropical islands and coral reefs sit along the junction of several tectonic plates or above subduction zones, where two plates meet and one slides under the other, down into Earth’s mantle. Other islands, like Haiti, straddle strike-slip faults, where plates rub up against each other.
While the region is seismically active, what really matters is the location of the epicenter and how many people lie in a tsunami’s path. Tourism fuels the Caribbean, with nearly $30 billion spent in 2015 by 29 million non-cruise ship visitors, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. “There could be 500,000 people along the beaches in any given day,” says Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, manager of the National Weather Service Caribbean Tsunami Warning Program based in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.
Von Hillebrandt-Andrade and her colleagues have been running these evacuation and emergency response drills in the Caribbean since 2011. This year, the exercise will test three scenarios simulating separate earthquakes: one off the coast of Costa Rica, another off the coast of Cuba and a third northeast of the Lesser Antilles.
On the French territories of Martinique and Guadalupe, Tuesday’s tsunami drill will be followed by a two-day search-and-rescue exercise that will see 500 specialized units flying in from France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Spain, according to Patrick Tyburn, tsunami coordinator for the four French islands (Martinique, Guadalupe, St. Barts, and St. Martin) and civil defense chief for the French Lesser Antilles.
These European crews will set up at an abandoned hospital on Martinique, bringing in volunteer “victims” who have been injured by the incoming wave. “We try to take into account tourism,” Tyburn says. “We used helicopters during the exercise to make alerts on the beaches, and we also started to work with the port to organize evacuation of cruise ships in case of a tsunami.”
While visitors might not see tsunami evacuation route signs at every beachside bar, more and more hotels are taking the threat seriously. Staff at many hotels are now training for the rare, yet potentially catastrophic, possibility of tsunami emergencies, according to Aliaga.
“They realize there is a cost to not being prepared,” says Aliaga. “And they are not willing to pay that cost.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is avoiding costs of their own. President Trump’s proposed budget calls for eliminating 14 percent of NOAA’s budget—including a tsunami preparedness grant program. It would help local officials buy signs and sirens, and conduct drills along parts of the US coast that are most at risk from tsunamis. The Caribbean may be prepared for a tsunami, but the Pacific Northwest may not be as lucky.

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