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Caribbean: Ready for another earthquake?

The stories and images of devastation pouring out of Haiti since the 7.0 earthquake on 12 January have shocked many citizens of neighbouring Caribbean countries. Many have joined relief efforts, and some have engaged in serious soul-searching about Haiti's history and the role the Caribbean should play in long-term reconstruction. And inevitably there has been discussion and debate about whether, and to what degree, the wider Caribbean is prepared for future major tremors, given that most of the region is earthquake prone. (Repeating Islands has posted a list of major historical earthquakes in the Caribbean, from the 17th century to the 20th.)

A 5.8-magnitude tremor in the vicinity of the Cayman Islands on 19 January and the 6.1-magnitude aftershock in Haiti on 20 January only added fuel to the discussion. Many bloggers — such as Yardflex — have linked to media reports discussing the ongoing risk, or suggesting that the Caribbean is “due for” another major tremor. As @anniepaul (Jamaica-based writer Annie Paul) remarked on Twitter after hearing of the Caymans tremor: “we must be next!”

Two days after the Haiti earthquake, Living in Barbados noted:

Most of us in the Caribbean think of our disasters in terms of weather-related events, such as hurricanes. But earthquakes are different. They cannot really be predicted with much accuracy, though one can know of their likelihood because of where the Earth's fault lines are…. they do not happen with equal frequency and do not have seasons. When your country's last experience of something is 100-200 years ago, it's hard to expect people to know what to do.

A few days later, Canada-based Jamaican writer Pamela Mordecai asked, “Can we avoid catastrophes like the earthquake in Haiti?”:

The ideal thing … would be to know when the earthquake is coming.

There is one famous case where the successful forecasting of a quake led to the saving of many lives. In 1975 Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of the city of Haicheng (population one million) mere days before a quake that had a 7.3 magnitude. Only a small portion of the population was hurt or killed…. The observation of animal behaviour was in part what led to the prediction of that earthquake….

It's hard to imagine that listening to the dogs and cats might have spared Haiti.

Bahamian Womanish Words reflected on the element of chance, or luck:

We in the Bahamas are as vulnerable to quakes and tsunamis as any other place, and I never really knew it until now. The window is full of calm, a silent, still night is coming down, Haiti is crying, and I am stunned by the thought of all that we know and love around us, swept away in one terrible moment, that it happens to people all the time, that it is only luck so far that has saved us.

And Trinidadian Coffeewallah wondered if recent natural disasters were part of a wider pattern:

It has become increasingly commonplace for Mother Nature to get even with us humans. Drought, flooding, earthquake, Tsunamis, we’ve seen a lot of activity…. Humans have grown to expect that we are at the top of the food chain and think we will always have it our way, perhaps Nature has other ideas for us or at least we must acknowledge that it comes with a price.

Other bloggers were pragmatic. Islas Bellas in the Cayman Islands, noting that “there's nothing like a few tremors to bring out the terror in people,” posted ten earthquake safety tips (and explaining that familiar advice about standing in a doorway during an earthquake isn't such a good idea). Trinidadian Taran Rampersad, writing at KnowTnT.com, argued for the implementation of emergency SMS (short message service) systems, to make communications easier in the event of a disaster:

Imagine being trapped under some rubble with only a mobile phone for company. You could be hurt, bleeding, hungry, dehydrated or any combination of the above. If the mobile infrastructure is even partially intact, calling people on the phone would be limited by the likely overload of the mobile system. But SMS messages get queued. They also drain less battery life which, if you're stuck, could be very important in saving your life or the life of someone you love….

The technology exists. Unfortunately, the concern never seems to exist until afterwards.

kid5rivers wrote about the importance of enforcing construction standards in Trinidad and Tobago:

…the drive must begin … with the massive public housing sector, where, for too long, shoddiness has been allowed to rule. For the life of me I cannot understand why inadequately reinforced buildings are permitted to be erected and or occupied.

And Now Is Wow Too simply decided to sign up for a Red Cross first aid course: “Not being ‘negative’, just practical,” she wrote. “Whether injuries are as a result of ‘simple’ daily mishaps or natural disasters, it's good for us to have these basic skills.”

As if to reinforce the sense of urgency about preparedness, Repeating Islands posted an article by geologist and tsunami expert Brian McAdoo, who analysed the Haiti earthquake and declared:

This earthquake should be a wake-up call for Kingston [Jamaica]. Should the 1692 earthquake happen today, Kingston would be devastated, albeit not to the same degree as Port-au-Prince. If these strong-shaking events occur in regions with poor construction, after the earthquake is done wreaking its havoc, the tsunami will finish the job, leaving little hope for those stuck in the collapsed buildings.

Global Voices’ Special Coverage Page on the earthquake in Haiti is here.

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