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Jan 10, 2018

The Earth Moved off Honduras on Tuesday Night; Tsunami Threat Causes Brief Panic

The tremors of a strong seven point six earthquake in Great Swan Island in Honduras were felt as far as Mexico and various areas of the country. Residents in Belize City, up north in Corozal as well as in other coastal areas felt the tremors shortly after nine o’clock on Tuesday night. The warning that a tsunami with tidal waves of up to three feet could hit Belize sent many scurrying to high ground and out of the city, primarily Belmopan.  As the Fire Department took to the streets sounding the alarm, vehicles formed long lines at gas stations and NEMO went into action. Tonight, we begin our coverage of the scary threat that lasted for about two hours before an all clear was announced. Fortunately, there were no casualties or damages.  News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.

 

Isani Cayetano, Reporting

Tremors from a powerful earthquake in the northwestern Caribbean Sea, approximately ninety-five miles off the coast of Honduras, rippled across the region in several short waves on Tuesday night, shortly before nine o’clock.  Seismic movement some twenty miles beneath the surface of Great Swan Island, was measured at a magnitude of seven point six, prompting a tsunami warning for parts of the Caribbean, including Belize.

 

Catherine Cumberbatch

Catherine Cumberbatch, Chief Meteorologist

“The expected time of arrival of that tsunami wave, the first wave, would be at 10:30 p.m. local time.  So it was six minutes after the event that we received [the initial message], which I think was very efficient, six minutes.  Thereupon after we received that message the National Emergency Management Organization, Colonel DeFour, he was called at nine o’clock.  At three minutes past nine he received the first bulletin.”

 

Upon receiving that initial information, the National Emergency Management Organization, NEMO, was immediately activated, despite Minister Edmond Castro being caught flatfooted.

 

Edmond Castro

Edmond Castro, NEMO Minister

“This is the first of its kind for us.  Like I said last night, I did not even know we had a tsunami center in this region, in the Pacific.  I knew about the hurricane center that would update us and so for Belize, for me as the minister responsible for NEMO, this is a new wave now that we will have to look at.  When there is an earthquake, especially in the ocean, we have to prepare ourselves for this type of disaster that might come our way.”

 

Without delay, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued an advisory following the earthquake and warned of possible swells of up to three feet above tide level.  The first order of business once NEMO had sprung into action, was to sound the alarm of a potential threat to Belize’s coastline.

 

Ted Smith

Ted Smith, Fire Chief, National Fire Service

“We have a standard operating procedure where once a tsunami warning is given for the coast or a specific portion of Belize, then the fire service’s operational plan will kick in, which is to blow all the major, the stationary, big sirens on the structure, as well as have the units within the area traverse that area warning the people, blowing the siren and warning the people of the imminent disaster or the disaster that may have occurred.”

 

That notice was sent out to all coastal communities and cayes.  In Belize City, there was a buzz of activity as residents began evacuating their homes in search of higher ground.  Others simply moved towards the shoreline to observe what they thought to be a recession of saltwater as a result of the pending tsunami.

 

Janelle Chanona

Janelle Chanona, Vice President, OCEANA Belize

“I don’t blame anyone for feeling uncomfortable or even panicked a little bit last night.  I think it was, you know, an eerie situation to hear this weird sounding alarm in Belize City or to get on social media and see tsunami alerts after what we’ve seen a tsunami cause in other countries.  So I definitely understand that fear and I think it is an uncomfortable reality that we have to get use to and that these things may be happening more often than we would like.”

 

A second warning soon thereafter, informed that the tidal wave would reach shore within twenty-two minutes of the initial caution.

 

Catherine Cumberbatch

“Countries or areas where the warning is being issued that have atolls and barrier reefs, they could have different variations due to the effects of the atolls and the reef.  So we got that message at twenty-six minutes and thereafter they also extended the time and said prior to the wave reaching at 10:30 they had extended that the wave would possibly reach us at 10:52 that the wave would reach us.  So that information was disseminated again in a very timely and efficient manner.”

 

From a domestic response perspective, how prepared is government for this kind of an occurrence?

 

Edmond Castro

“We are as prepared as we could be, from a national emergency point of view, in terms of warning the residents and warning the people in this country, those along the coast to move to safer grounds and that kind of thing.  However, we have never experienced a tsunami like what we have seen in Asia, and this one, because the center had advised us that it should only arrive with about three feet of water, in some areas it would be more depending on the basin where we’re at.  So it wasn’t as bad if it arrived on our shores.”

 

Buffering the impact of the massive roller were it to have materialized is our barrier reef, an environmental protection against intense wave action from these kinds of activities.

 

Janelle Chanona

“I think given that the Belize Barrier Reef really lives up to its name in terms of being a barrier, a first line of defense and the fact that coral reefs absorb, I think, more than ninety-five percent of a wave energy’s action.  If you think about the type of waves that come into the reef and then what comes after it, it’s really incredible to see coral reefs working that way.  And just as importantly, I think we need to really highlight the importance of mangroves in storm surge protection.  There are some really incredible videos that demonstrate, you know, just how much the mangroves in a very short buffer frame can really dissipate those waves.”

 

Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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