What happens if a 7 earthquake hits us?


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Category: Reflections 24 Feb 10

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.


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