Disaster in T&T Pt1


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Category: Reflections 23 Feb 10

In January 2010 Haiti was hit by catastrophic earthquake of 7.0 in magnitude leaving some 230,000 people dead, an estimated 200,000 injured and one million homeless.

Over 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed. Can it happen here? In September 2004, 90 miles from Trinidad, Ivan, a category three hurricane slammed into Grenada, destroying and damaging 90 per cent of homes. In one day, the island lost two times its annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Can it happen here? The experts say yes on both counts. This is the first of a seven part series in the Trinidad Guardian and CNC3 News by Ira Mathur.

On January 12, 2010 an earthquake of magnitude of 7.0 hit Haiti, leaving at least 230,000 dead, 300,000 injured and three million homeless. Eighty per cent of the buildings in Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince, were damaged or destroyed. On September 7, 2004, Ivan, a category three hurricane slammed into our closest Caribbean neighbour, Grenada, destroying and damaging 90 percent of homes. In one day, the island suffered damages equivalent in value to twice its annual Gross Domestic Product. In both cases T&T residents responded immediately and with generosity and empathy to the suffering of others. But after the immediate response the question that we as a country need to pose is whether natural disasters of such a catastrophic scale can happen here?  The experts say “Yes.” Richard Robertson, head of the Seismic Research unit at the University of the West Indies (UWI), said this country is just as vulnerable to earthquakes as Haiti.

The solid rocks that are thought of as the earth are only 30-100 kms deep. Below this, the centre of the ball that is the earth is actually not solid but is made of molten (hot liquid) rock. The solid rocks which make up the earth’s land masses and sea beds are divided into of a series of plates (tectonic plates) which float on the molten rock below.  At the junctions where these plates meet, there is volcanic activity as molten rocks from below leak to the surface, and earthquakes as these huge masses of rock move against each other. (A look at a map will show that Trinidad and Tobago are in a similar plate setting as Haiti. In our case at the boundary between the South American and the Caribbean plates as Haiti, on Hispaniola, which is on the boundary between the North American and Caribbean plates.) According to Robertson, both are strike slip boundaries, where plates are attempting to move past each other and sometimes they get stuck. Huge amounts of stress builds up and is eventually released as earthquakes.

Seismologists know where these areas of high stress exist in and around Trinidad and Tobago and can say with some degree of accuracy where these events will occur- the southeast of Tobago, the Gulf of Paria, the Paria peninsula just off the north coast of Venezuela and the southeast of Trinidad. But so far no-one cann predict when a major earthquake will hit or its size when it occurs. According to this country’s records, T&T has been subject to major earthquakes causing considerable damage, especially in the first half of the 19th century. More recently Tobago suffered damage in several smaller earthquakes in 1997. The largest earthquake recorded in the Caribbean occurred when the Eastern Caribbean was hit by a magnitude 8.5 earthquake in 1843. This would be 32 times stronger than the quake that hit Haiti. “These larger earthquakes happen roughly every 150-200 years so we are overdue for one here,” said Robertson. In fact, local seismologists indicate that over the last four years they have seen a substantial increase in the number of small earthquakes taking place within the land mass of Trinidad itself.

These large waves are generally formed as result of large (magnitude 7.5 or greater) underwater earthquakes, which cause huge landslides under water and the pushing of large amounts of water outwards from the landslides. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the resulting tsunami killed more than 230,000 people and caused immense damage in 14 countries—some more than 2,000 miles away from the epicentre. Because tsunamis propagate their waves in all directions and these waves can travel very far without losing much energy, the source of the tsunami doesn’t have to be close to T&T to affect us. However, the most likely source of earthquakes able to produce tsunamis which could affect T&T are to the north and the country is relatively protected, since, unlike the eastern coast, the northern coast is neither flat nor heavily populated.

For the countries of the Caribbean Basin the annual hurricane season normally poses the biggest risk of loss of human life and to both infrastructural damage and loss of earnings. T&T has been described in the insurance literature as being “outside of the hurricane belt”—a statement that has been widely quoted here. In fact this country lies on the southern edge of the Atlantic hurricane basin. T&T was hit twice by hurricanes in the 20th century (1933; with 19 deaths and substantial damage and Hurricane Flora in 1963; which hit Tobago causing 18 deaths and major damage). In the 1990’s this country was also hit by four tropical storms, none of which caused any deaths, though there was substantial loss due to flooding. Meteorologists have indicated that it is likely that in the 21st century, with rising sea water temperatures caused by global warming, the Caribbean is likely to see more—and more powerful—hurricanes affecting the Caribbean and it’s only a matter of time before T&T gets hit.

Marlon Noel, Assistant Director of the Trinidad and Tobago Meterological Office, says it is very likely that we can be “affected by a direct hit of a category two, three, four or even five hurricane. “Once we live in the Caribbean we should not be surprised with earthquakes, volcanoes, or hurricanes. That is the nature of the place we live in. We are in a multi-hazard zone,” said Robertson. Siesmologists are now saying that its not a case of if, but when an earthquake of a magnitude of 7 and above hits us. 


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