The January day started off like any other in the Cayman Islands – warm sunshine, calm waves on Seven Mile Beach and cool breezes.
However, midway through Tuesday, 28 Jan. 2020, that serenity was broken with a jolt as all three islands were rocked by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake.
“This is a really big thing for Cayman because I think a lot of us… a lot of people didn’t realise that earthquakes at that magnitude were a possibility and we hadn’t had anything really dramatic since 2004, the Christmas [earthquake] that we had,” said Hazard Management Cayman Islands Director Danielle Coleman in an interview with the Cayman Compass.
She pointed out that the major earthquake was followed by 23 aftershocks over the next few weeks, came as a wake-up call for many, especially those in HMCI, as the public response to the earthquake was one of concern.
“We’re trying to work very closely with schools and parents to make sure that people don’t get in their cars. One, emergency first responders can’t actually move through the traffic. It’s very, very difficult… so they can’t respond to the emergency at hand, but also you’re putting yourself at significant risk. The traffic issue was a big problem,” she said.
The earthquake, which originated at a depth of six miles and lasted for about two minutes, was felt in Cayman, Jamaica and Cuba, according to the United States Geological Survey.
It also triggered a tsunami threat message through the US National Weather Service, and police and government in Cayman issued warnings to residents to steer clear of the coast.
A ‘small tsunami’ measuring 1.5 feet was recorded in the George Town harbour.
While the quake caused minimal damage to buildings, a number of sinkholes appeared on the three islands, with most on Grand Cayman. Gapping holes were reported at Seven Mile Public Beach, the Health Services Authority carpark, Cricket Square and North Side.
Pipelines across Grand Cayman were also damaged, leading to many homes being left without water, for days in some cases.
While Cayman’s infrastructure and buildings withstood the shock, Simon Boxall, HMCI deputy director, said that should not be taken for granted.
“To think that our buildings are capable of withstanding any kind of earthquake event is actually not the case,” Boxall said.
Hazard Management and its mitigation team, in particular, continues to look at risk assessment and risk analysis, Boxall said, and the UK government is assisting with an underwater bathymetry survey. This survey, he said, will eventually help to produce storm-surge maps as well as tsunami models which will be much more accurate.
“So eventually we’re going to be able to give people advanced information of hurricane storm surge, which would potentially save a lot of lives if we knew how high the surge is going to [be] before the actual hurricane comes ashore,” he said, adding that the same could possibly be done with tsunamis.”
Cayman, he said, has to continue to increase its risk assessment and risk analysis to have a better understanding of how people need to prepare for these types of events.
“In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, there was some talk about conducting a more broad geological study of the Cayman Islands, he said, but noted that when the coronavirus pandemic hit, attention turned to COVID-19.
While the geological study is not completely off the radar, “it’s not the priority at the present time, he added.
Awareness and preparation key
Premier Alden McLaughlin, addressing legislators in Parliament following the earthquake last year, said he was “haunted” by the stretches of traffic he saw from his office. Had a tsumani hit or had things been worse, many lives would have been lost due to people getting trapped in their cars, he said.
That image also continues to bother Coleman and her team, all of whom have been working to upgrade Cayman’s detection and assessment tools, response policies, and develop public education campaigns on responding to emergencies.
Noting there are many potential hazards of which people need to be aware, Coleman stressed the idea is not to be afraid but to be prepared to “empower ourselves to know what to do in the event any of these emergencies might happen. The more knowledge you have, and the more knowledge you share… as a family unit, as a school, as a business, the better [you will be able] to respond”.
HMCI will be rolling out a public-awareness campaign in the coming days to enforce the message of preparing for an earthquake, and it is working with schools and government agencies to develop earthquake-response plans.
Coleman said since last year’s earthquake, Boxall has delivered presentations in more than 40 classrooms in addition to addressing parent-teachers association meetings.
Boxall, reflecting on the events of the 28 Jan. earthquake, said, “I think we need to do a better job of reassuring parents the schools actually do have plans that are tested. They have muster locations, they look at issues – like if there’s a tsunami coming, what do they do? We had to push ahead with that.”
He said Cayman has done well with hurricane awareness, but more needs to be done with other natural disasters, adding, “we need to try and get to more people and make sure that our message gets to everybody,” he added.
Prior to the 2020 earthquake, Cayman was struck by a 6.8 magnitude quake on 14 Dec. 2004, just three months after being devastated by Hurricane Ivan.