Disaster in T&T Pt 2
Local seismologists have confirmed that Trinidad and Tobago
is overdue for an earthquake similar to the one that shattered Haiti in
January 2010. In this, the second of a seven-part special report on disaster
preparedness in T&T, Ira Mathur examines what effect an earthquake of a
magnitude of seven and above would have on our islands.
Dr Richard Robertson, director of the Seismic Research Unit
at the University of the West Indies, says we live in a seismically active
region and should expect earthquakes.
“The largest earthquake recorded in the Caribbean was of a
magnitude of 8.5 in 1843. These larger earthquakes happen roughly every 150
years. The smaller earthquakes of magnitude of 7.00 and below happen every
twenty years. In that sense, we are overdue for an earthquake of a magnitude
similar to the one that hit Haiti.” What will would an earthquake of a
magnitude of seven and above feel like? Dr Robertson says it would be
“frightening” and “create panic.” He added, “There is no warning. The ground
and buildings are shaking. You hear glass breaking, people screaming,
rumbling sounds as houses buckle... will feel like it will go on forever.”
One of the basic assumptions a human brain makes is that the earth does not
move. It is a profound shock when it does.
Should we be worried in T&T?
The world has seen the devastation that an earthquake can do
in Haiti, leading people to believe that it is a natural disaster that could
not be prevented. But it is vital to remember that when a similar-sized
earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area in the US in 1989 there were only
63 deaths as opposed to Haiti's 230,000. Where do we stand? Are we more like
the US, a developed country, where buildings can withstand major
earthquakes, or more like Haiti, the poorest country in the Western
Hemisphere? As far as earthquakes are concerned, Trinidad and Tobago, our
experts agree, will be as vulnerable as Haiti. Colonel Mahendra Mathur,
former head of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) says,
“Earthquakes themselves with their shaking rarely take lives.
What kills and causes damage are the earthquake's effects on
man-made structures (falling buildings, crumbling bridges and homes), and by
associated disasters such as fires, landslides and tsunamis.” Richard
Clarke, lecturer in civil engineering at University of West Indies, says,
“If we were hit by a magnitude 8 earthquake close to the land or on land in
Trinidad, then at least three quarters of the Trinidad and Tobago's
buildings would be destroyed.” Colonel George Robinson, CEO of the Office of
Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) agrees that we would suffer
major damage "even the effects of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on the kind of
built environment that we have in Trinidad and Tobago, we would have a
similar experience to Haiti.” Why the difference between T&T and Haiti on
one hand and the US experience on the other? The answer is that we do not
have a building code that is enforced. Mathur says, “The US and the state of
California in particular are very strict in enforcing building codes which
take into consideration the risk of earthquakes.”
Here in T&T, based on what both Clarke and Dr Robertson say,
we would expect our larger buildings (the Twin Towers, the Hyatt, the Prime
Minister's residence etc.), which have been properly designed to survive,
but many of our older buildings will collapse, which may include our major
hospitals and many of our schools. In the West we would see major damage to
the reclaimed lands of Westmoorings, and the hills of Goodwood Park. Around
our major towns and cities, weaker and older structures built with
unreinforced clay bricks and on the hillsides (Morvant and Laventille) would
see major damage.
Unlike Haiti, where there were no major fires, Dr Robertson
expects that there will be major fires in our larger conurbations areas of
Point. Lisas, Point-a-Pierre and Point Fortin. Mathur says “expect huge
explosions and raging fires from leaks of the many natural gas pipe lines
which crisscross Trinidad. “Clouds of poisonous gases would be released.”
These fires could rage unchecked since there would be no water as pipelines
would be ruptured by the earthquake and there would be no electricity to
pump the water. According to Clarke, in the absence of data, we would be
looking at a minimum of 30,000 dead and thousands injured.
Acting Police Commissioner James Philbert says, “If the
earthquake hit at daytime, during working hours we would have hundreds of
thousands of terrified people wandering around trying to locate their
families, their kids at school, attempting to get shelter, to get water and
food. If it happened at night, these people would be trying to dig out
friends and relatives by hand in darkness lit only by hellish flames. There
would be looting and burning. ” By January 24, twelve days after the
earthquake of magnitude 7.0 hit Haiti, the country registered at least 52
aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater.
Even homes and buildings that stood up during the major
earthquake were threatened with, and did collapse. In smaller states such as
ours, we would, like Haiti, need to depend on outside help for our recovery.
What would our recovery look like? Slow and hard.
Recovery would take years. As the Government, without
immediate income due to major losses in the country’s oil-and gas-based
economy, attempts to take charge. As hundreds of thousands of households
attempt to make claims on their insurances. As people attempt to survive on
their savings until their workplaces are back in operation. Look at those
pictures of Haiti again. That would be us.