For many, the 28 Jan. 2020 earthquake led to a sharper focus on tremor awareness at Hazard Management Cayman Islands to schools educating students on how to respond during a seismic event.

Over at the Water Authority, keeping water flowing in local pipes in the aftermath of natural events like earthquakes took centre stage. Director Dr. Gelia Frederick-van Genderen said since last year’s 7.7 magnitude earthquake, the authority had established a dedicated leak-detection crew.

In an emailed reply to queries from the Cayman Compass on the authority’s earthquake response one year on, she said the crew has been tasked to “methodically inspect the water distribution system to identify leaks proactively, utilizing various specialized tools and techniques.”

A final cost for repairs as a result of earthquake damage was not available, as Frederick-van Genderen said those costs were factored into the authority’s regular maintenance budget.

At Consolidated Water, three potable water tanks at its West Bay seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant were damaged. The tanks, however, held their integrity and the company’s potable water-distribution systems maintained pressure with no significant leaks detected.

- Advertisement -

The earthquake last January, which triggered sinkholes in communities across the three islands, impacted local pipelines, leaving homeowners with limited and, in some cases, no water supply.

This file photo from January 2020 shows Water Authority crews repairing damage to pipelines in the South Sound area after the 7.7 magnitude earthquake. – Photo: Water Authority

“Because we have an emergency preparedness plan in place, the Authority was able to quickly respond to ensure our system’s integrity once it was apparent there was a higher-than-normal flow demand issue. I am also very grateful to our customers for their patience and understanding throughout the process, and for the kindness they showed to our field crews,” Frederick-van Genderen said in her emailed response.

The earthquake, which originated at a depth of 6 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. 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.

Frederick-van Genderen sent workers to manipulate many of the approximately 2,000 valves across over 300 miles of pipeline in the Water Authority’s network, isolating specific areas for closer inspection and identifying potential leaks.

“I am struck by the dedication of the Authority’s staff when reflecting on the earthquake. The operations crew worked tirelessly throughout that night and the following day, immediately after the quake, to systematically inspect and assess the distribution network for leaks and gradually reconnect customers. This, after having worked a full day and not having the opportunity to be with their own family after a rather traumatic event,” she said.

Frederick-van Genderen said that the process was very labour intensive.

“Simultaneously, our team had to adjust the water pressure, ensuring that the rest of the system is not negatively impacted or result in water loss. This process was made more challenging in this emergency scenario, where many unknown variables arose as we moved through the service restoration procedures. These variables made it difficult for the Authority to provide timelines to restore service in the different areas within our piped water network,” she said.

However, even though there were aftershocks, workers on those crews continued their efforts.

“Despite the challenges, our team was able to restore service briskly. All customers east of the Authority’s Lower Valley Water Works Plant were reconnected by 11 p.m. the night of the quake. Within 24 hours of the event, 95% of customers were reconnected. By the following evening all customers, except for those on Mary Read Crescent and parts of Windsor Park (approximately 1% of customers), were reconnected,” she said.

Recounting the days after the major seismic event, Frederick-van Genderen noted that the final 200 customers were reconnected within 48 hours of the quake.

“Through the immediate response efforts, and further leak detections in the following week, the Authority was able to identify a large leak off Rex Creighton Boulevard, and minor leaks in South Sound, Prospect and North Sound Estates. Additionally, the water main had to be secured near multiple sinkholes across the network,” she said.

- Advertisement -

Support local journalism. Subscribe to the all-access pass for the Cayman Compass.

Subscribe now