11 January, 2018

Belize's First Tsunami and Warning

Dianna and I had already gone to bed. I slept through it. Dianna was awake enough to hear our roll-up doors rattling. She said it sounded like wind blowing against the doors, only there was no wind.

Our dogs, the neighborhood's dogs, and all the dogs as far as we could hear, all went batsh*t barking their heads off.

Dianna and I were looking out the bathroom window to see what the ruckus was all about. We saw Denis and Vivien outside, walking around the driveway. They heard us holler ineffectively to the dogs to quiet down.

Denis called over to us, asking if we had felt the earthquake. He said Vivien felt the couch move, and he saw their lampshade moving erratically. They were all excited as this was their first earthquake. We told them we hadn't felt a thing.

After that Dianna and I went back to bed, being the seasoned earthquaker's that we are, coming from the northwest. Instead of sleeping right away, I got on the intertubes to see if I could find any information on the earthquake, such as intensity, epicenter, etc. Naturally, I couldn't get anywhere to check that out.

About that time, my phone rang. It was Mojan, our Internet Service Provider (ISP), wanting to know if we had felt the earthquake. It was a surprise to us that he called us, but we didn't quiz him on that. Maybe he wanted us to let him know if his tower was still standing or something. Mojan said he thought it was his kids waking up and making a racket, but then he heard all the dogs in his area of Corozal going berserk. He lives in the Sant Rita area up by the Belikin distributor.

Shortly after that, I got a Facebook message from Vivien saying she heard the earthquake was a 7.8 and wanted to know if there was any danger of a tsunami. I guessed from our experiences with the Nisqually earthquake of 2001 in Olympia, Washington, at the time, it was called a 7.8 or 7.9 earthquake. In the years since then, the level apparently was refined down to a 6.8.

With the damages from that earthquake as a guide, we assumed that the earthquake here in Belize was not very close to us. We initially had no indication of direction though and assumed that the quake had been centered in Guatemala or Honduras, as those areas are where most of the earthquake activity around here seems to come from.

When Vivien asked about a tsunami, I assumed then the earthquake had probably occurred out in the Caribbean Sea somewhere. We also have had a fair amount of experience in tsunami preparation and training up in the northwest. I said with a 7.8, that a tsunami was unlikely. Maybe if it had been like around an 8.5 or 9.0 or so. Shows what I know.

With that, Dianna and I went to sleep. It wasn't until the next morning that we found that, yes indeed, there had been a tsunami warning issued. But since we didn't have the radio turned to Love FM, and don't have cable TV, a warning was non-existent.

Earthquake and Tsunami Warning - Image Courtesy USGS
Apparently, around nine PM the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Tsunami Warning Center (NTWC) in Palmer, Alaska, had issued a tsunami alert for all land areas within a 620-mile radius of the earthquake's center. The warning stated that the first tsunami wave could reach Belize by 10:30 PM. 

Belize City sent fire trucks out sounding their sirens to alert the city's population. Apparently, one is supposed to instinctively know to tune in Love FM, which serves as the country's emergency alert station. Not that that would have done us any good up here in Corozal.

The earthquake was believed to have been centered near the Great Swan Island off Honduras. This would put the earthquake about 300 miles from Belize.

Belize coastal waters did recede after the earthquake. In the case of hurricanes and tropical storms, this is not an unusual occurrence. For the waters to recede for no apparent reason, is disconcerting, to say the least.

In Corozal, our caretaker Carlos, told us the following morning when he came to work that local Corozal police had been trying to chase people away from the waterfront and encouraging them to head for high ground. He also said that a line had formed at the One Mall gas station of cars trying to get some gas (most local folks normally only keep a few gallons in their cars at any one time). That was short-lived as One Mall closed shortly after the earthquake. Carlos also said he heard that the Corozal Fire Station had sounded its siren in an attempt to warn people. None of us down this way heard that at all.

Channel 7News said that in Belize City "the streets were desolate and the air was tense." A few minutes before eleven PM, the tsunami warning was terminated and NEMO gave the all clear for residents to return to their homes. We got none of the warning messages or information at the time.

It turns out the tsunami, such as it was, ended up being forecast for 28 centimeters - about eleven inches. Almost laughable, but it just as easily could have turned out to be like Aceh, Thailand in 2004. A tsunami like that would have rolled over our cayes like nothing was there, and would have likely caused severe damage to Belize's mainland coastal communities. The NTWC said that a wave with a maximum height of 1.2 inches was recorded one a sea-level gauge at Carrie Bowe Caye, east of Sittee River in southern Belize.

Around midnight, water was returning slowly back to the shore and everything was soon back to normal.  There was no major tsunami in any of the countries within the threat zone.  In Honduras, water went out 10 to 15 feet from the coast and did not return to regular levels until the following morning. 

So, we lucked out big time. For a first-ever tsunami warning for Belize, the government agencies, NEMO, the National Fire Service, Belize Police, all performed well. the warning was issued, inadequate for sure, but still, the proper responses were made.

One thing that was apparent was the lack of an effective and functional warning system. Not just for tsunami, but for any large emergency or disaster. I suggested via Facebook, the following morning, that the Government of Belize (GOB) and NEMO should embark on instituting a warning system incorporating both of Belize's mobile telephone systems, Smart and Digicell, so that, in the future, when a warning is issued, it automatically goes out over the cell system's to warn the maximum number of people possible. A very brief message of what has occurred, and what to do, should be sent out and probably sent out repeatedly during the event, and an all-clear issued repeatedly for a time at the end of the event.

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