Earthquakes, Scandals and Smokescreens


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Category: Reflections 17 May 15

Three weeks after a mammoth 7.8 earthquake in Nepal, on April 25, left 8,000 people dead, the reeling nation got hit hard again last week with another powerful tremor of 7.3 magnitude that left dozens dead, over 1,000 injured, destroyed buildings and set off avalanches leaving the buckling nation in chaos. CNN reported that as the second earthquake tremor hit, an eerie silence was followed by petrified screaming. This time the people knew what was coming.

Many survivors are in desperate need of food and water. People are walking, foraging and sleeping among the dead. Tempers are flaring. Fights are breaking out among those trying to board vehicles and relief convoys out of Kathmandu.

The BBC reported that “a man named Rishi Khanal, 27, said he had been surrounded by dead bodies and drank his own urine to survive. I had some hope but by yesterday I’d given up. I was sure no one was coming for me.”

He told AP news agency he was certain he was going to die after being trapped in the rubble for over 80 hours. The reconstruction costs are estimated at one billion US dollars.

Every now and then, we in T&T feel a tremor here and there. We are so used to living with hope and without action, with luck and without planning, that we never think it’s going to happen to us.

But on the eve of an election, when two leaders have agreed to debate the issues, I wonder if we can get past scandals and start thinking about planning for our future.

We have seen what happened next door, in Haiti. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake was catastrophic, leaving some 200,000 dead and three million affected. We all say we want to get past the scandals. We want to be a grown-up country and talk education and health, housing and crime, safety and national security, foreign debt and savings, employment and a safety net for the most vulnerable amongst us.

Three years ago, I interviewed Richard Robertson, head of the Seismic Research unit at UWI, who said alarmingly that T&T is overdue for an earthquake. He said, “T&T is more vulnerable to earthquakes about now as we are on similar plate setting as Haiti.

Larger earthquakes of 8.5 magnitude and above happen every 150-200 years or so. We are overdue for one here.” Robertson said that in the last four years, seismologists have seen a “substantial increase in the number of small earthquakes within the land mass of Trinidad.” He added that “with some degree of accuracy that the places at risk are the southeast of Tobago, Gulf of Paria and Paria peninsula.”

Dr Richard Clarke, lecturer at the Civil Engineering Department of UWI, told me back in 2012 of the impact if we are hit by a magnitude eight earthquake in Trinidad. Clarke said “at least three-quarter of our buildings will be destroyed and major industrial areas of Pt Lisas, Pointe-a-Pierre and Pt Fortin, will experience huge explosions and raging fires from leaks of the many natural gas pipelines which criss-cross Trinidad. He added that, “clouds of poisonous gases would be released. Fires would rage unchecked since there would be no water as pipelines would be ruptured by the earthquake.

There would be no electricity to pump the water.” He added chillingly, “We would be looking at a minimum of 30,000 dead and 100,000 injured.” “During the course of this investigation I discovered that most people have no idea what to do or where to go if a major natural disaster like an earthquake of 7.0 and above, or category 3 hurricane hits us.”

The then acting police commissioner, James Philbert, said, “If the earthquake hit in the day, hundreds of thousands of terrified people would be 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 will be looting and burning.”

Three years back, Col George Robinson, CEO of the Office of Disaster Preparedness & Management (ODPM), told me that “the effects of even 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,” adding, “We would need external assistance to support us.”

Events which experts have told us to expect could leave thousands “dead, injured, homeless.” That means thousands upon thousands dead and homeless. Look at those pictures of Haiti again; look at the pictures of Nepal. That could be us.

Is this a time to be talking about scandals or issues? Are we prepared? No. I would love to be proven wrong. I would love to see an ODPM plan for evacuation, a medical plan for the injured and disposal of bodies.

Once again, I urge the population to turn away from scandals, to form lobbies to insist on discussion on issues, (this is one of many) to insist that we have a government that works for us, and not one that entertains and humours us with scandals or puts up smokescreens instead of service to the people of this country.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur