Agency tests tsunami response with drill

Hazard Management’s Simon Boxall, seen above at an earlier disaster exercise, said Thursday’s tsunami drill, which included regular radio updates, was phase one in a series of responses the agency is working on. - Photo: James Whittaker

Officials with Hazard Management Cayman Islands prepared for a tsunami on Thursday, generated by a magnitude 8.1 earthquake off the coast of Columbia at 9 a.m. Both the quake and the resultant wave were imaginary. This was only a drill.

As part of a Caribbeanwide exercise sponsored by the United Nations, countries involved in the test had one of three scenarios to choose from.

Simon Boxall, spokesman for hazard management, said the Cayman Islands staff chose the scenario with the most immediate threat. Even then, they had nearly two hours to get the word out before the fictional tsunami was expected to arrive, at 10:52 a.m. in the Sister Islands and 11:01 on Grand Cayman.

That is substantially longer than the regional tsunami warning issued in January after an earthquake off the coast of Honduras. In that instance, there were only 40 minutes between the time the earthquake struck and the time the potential tsunami wave was predicted to hit Cayman. The first official notification from Hazard Management that night was sent at 10:46 p.m. – several minutes after the anticipated wave impact.

Mr. Boxall said Cayman officials want to be able to react more quickly than that.

“We have to get the message to as many people as possible in 15 minutes,” he said.

Thursday’s exercise was a step in that direction.

“We used our radio interrupt,” he said, referring to a mechanism that allows for emergency officials to break into radio broadcasts with urgent warnings. “We tested it here on Radio Cayman and on the Brac and Little Cayman.”

Other communication possibilities include the use of cellphone alerts, ticker tape messages on the bottom of popular websites, and breaking into cable television programs.

“This was just phase one,” Mr. Boxall said of the drill.

In such an emergency, residents would be advised to move inland or, if available, move to higher floors in multi-story buildings. Those on boats near the shore would be told to put out to sea.

He said it was too early to know how well things went.

“We haven’t had our debrief yet,” he said. “There’s information coming in that will get gathered together. We’ll try to see what worked and what didn’t.”

The system, he said, will continue to be refined.

“We recognize we need it,” Mr. Boxall said.

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