Tortola residents make their way up Joes Hill during the tsunami simulation. (Photo: Rushton Skinner)

More than 4,000 people across the Virgin Islands took part in this year’s Caribe Wave tsunami drill, with residents walking up the nearest hill to avoid the simulated natural hazard, according to the Department of Disaster Management.

The exercise started shortly after 10 a.m. last Thursday here and abroad, with 31 countries and territories participating in their choice of two scenarios: a tsunami created by an 8.7-magnitude earthquake in the Puerto Rico Trench or another created by an 8.47-magnitude earthquake near Panama.

Member states chose the nearest scenario to them and practised finding higher elevation when warning alarms sounded. The VI used the first scenario.

Years of practice

The territory is in a region of high tectonic plate activity, but in the event of a tsunami many residents can rely on habit after years of drills that began in 2009, according to DDM Information and Education Manager Chrystall Kanyuck-Abel.

“Everyone has this habit. They know what to do: reviewing their plans, practising getting to their route, doing their wellness checks, safety walk-arounds when they come back, and all thosegood tsunami-safe procedures,” Ms. Kanyuck-Abel said. “When you look at global patterns, the quote-unquote ‘ring of fire,’ which is the Pacific Rim, is where you see a greater number of earthquakes and tsunamis, because the two are very closely related. The reality is that anywhere you have oceans, you can potentially have this risk.”

Though tsunamis occur less frequently than hurricanes, they can be just as destructive.

“Other things that we look at in terms of the risk profile is that tsunamis might be very rare, but if they should happen, they have the potential to be extremely destructive,” she said.

Time to impact

The amount of time residents have to escape to higher ground in a tsunami depends on where the wave begins, according to the DDM. For example, Ms. Kanyuck-Abel said, the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal affected the ocean around the VI, but it took hours for the effects to reach across the Atlantic Ocean.

On the other hand, she added, a quake like the one simulated last Thursday would allow far less reaction time.

“If it were something like what we just exercised, based on their timeline it’s 20 minutes, maybe 30,” she said. “So you might only have a few minutes of notice.”

In any case, the most important thing to do is have a plan and practise it regularly, said Ms. Kanyuck-Abel.

“One of the reasons why we really encourage folks to make a plan is that if you are a person who, say, needs help to walk up the hill, or you have access to a multi-storey building and [must execute] what we call vertical evacuation, that might be the best case for you personally,” Ms. Kanyuck-Abel said. “We saw that in 2010 in Japan. You had primary schools where the entire population of the school was up on a four-storey roof and they were able to stay safe that way.”

Tortola residents make their way up Joes Hill during the tsunami simulation. (Photo: Rushton Skinner)
The signs

Though Ms. Kanyuck-Abel described a major tsunami as a once-in-a-century event even in many tsunami-prone coastal areas, she described some of the signs that would begin to appear if a tsunami were on its way.

“If you feel a very strong or long earthquake — not the one where you’re like, ‘Is it a truck or is it an earthquake?’ — but something that goes on for a minute of shaking or something that is so strong that it would knock you off your feet,” she said. “In that case, folks shouldn’t wait for any kind of alert. If they’re on the coast, they should go ahead and head to higher ground or head inland.”

Other signs can be seen from the beach, according to the information officer.

“If you’re on the beach and you see the ocean behaving weird — either it’s drawing really far out or it’s making a lot of noise; if you’re hearing like a jet engine noise on the ocean — that is a sign that a tsunami is on the way,” she said.

Distant early warning

DDM recommends that people sign up for multiple alert systems in order to stay safe.

“In the past, we would have heard that persons are relying on hearing from their mobile provider,” Ms. Kanyuck-Abel said. “Of course we work with them, but if you only have one way to get messages, and that one way fails, then, you know, you could be in trouble. So it’s a good idea to have like portable radio or the DDM app.”