By Kenichi Serino
ST. AUGUSTINE, Trinidad and Tobago — A series of small earthquakes that occurred last weekend north of St. Kitts are a warning that the Federation, and the Caribbean region as a whole, need to prepare for a much larger incident, an expert has said.
On Dec. 6 at 4:28 p.m. to Dec. 7 at 9:50 a.m. The University of West Indies Seismic Research Centre (UWI SRC) recorded that a burst of 54 earthquakes occurred to the north of St. Kitts ranging in magnitude from 1.2 to 4.1.
Although no one reported feeling the earthquakes so far, they should still be taken as a warning about the lack of earthquake preparedness in the region, says UWI SRC’s Dr. Joan Latchman.
“The occurrence of small [incidents] would remind us that we have a seismic hazard. And seismic hazards should be treated with great respect,” said Latchman.
Latchman said the region has had a history of devastating earthquakes including one of an estimated magnitude of between 8.1 to 8.5 that struck between Antigua and Gaudeloupe in 1843. According to the UWI website, thousands were killed and the economy heavily disrupted. Another quake of an estimated magnitude of 7.5 to 7.9 struck west of Trinidad in 1766. An untold number of people were killed and all masonry buildings and the local economy itself were destroyed.
“The goal is for us to recognize that we have this seismic hazard in the Eastern Caribbean region. To understand that because of our place in the North American and South American plates where it is converging,” said Latchman.
The convergence is happening extremely slowly however, “this fact should not make us complacent and treat the hazard as one that is not real and not serious.”
Latchman could not estimate the extent of the destruction should the region be hit by an earthquake but said it could be much worse than past quakes.
“We would have to know the status of the building stock and what they can withstand. But if you look at the historical account, the death toll was very high, the damage was very high,” said Latchman.
“Given the population density we have now, we would expect to take a high death toll if the structures were not earthquake resistant.”
Latchman said governments should include earthquake preparation into consideration when it makes public policy, such as infrastructure construction, medical and equipment preparation and building code enforcement.
“The investments we are making in developing these states should be done the context of sustainability. Such that when the large magnitude event occurs will not send us back a generation,” said Latchman.
Latchman said policy makers in the region could take their cues from their counterparts in California and Japan, who in the aftermath of serious earthquakes made plans for the future to soften the impact of future quakes.
“We should not wait to be devastated to learn, we can learn from those that have had that experience and the measures they have implemented and found useful,” she said.
“It is either that we are building for the future or we are not. We are either leaving our children a legacy they can build or not.”
Latchman warned that the effects of a devastating earthquake could go beyond property and economic damage but also human resources. She cited the Armenian earthquake of 1988 where 80 percent of the country’s medical professionals were killed.
“Rich countries might treat their people as expendable, but we should not. When we invest in our people, it’s a major investment for our country,” Latchman said.
“You don’t only lose things, you will lose people. There is knowledge, there is experience.”
Latchman said in addition to government, individuals should also be prepared for what they would do in the case of an earthquake.
“We have our part to play in being prepared mentally that one day certain events will occur, we should be mentally prepared so we know what to do before during and after,” Latchman said.