Technical glitch forces VITEMA to shut down tsunami sirens


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ST. CROIX - The territory's tsunami early warning system - which is supposed to alert residents if there is an impending tsunami so they can flee to higher ground - currently is completely inoperable on St. Croix.

Likewise, one of the system's four sirens on St. Thomas is not functioning, while one of the two sirens on St. John is not operating.

V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Director Elton Lewis said that VITEMA, which is responsible for the tsunami warning system, is "experiencing some technical difficulties" with the sirens.

According to Lewis, the problem boils down to this: Whenever a microphone on VITEMA's radio system is keyed and words are spoken or sounds made, the transmission - whatever it might be - is broadcast over the affected sirens, which have been shut down because of the problem.

Lewis said late Thursday afternoon that he did not know what caused the problem to occur. He said he could obtain that information today. The tsunami warning system in the territory was installed and tested just more than a year ago.

On St. Thomas, the inoperable siren is at Havensight, Lewis said. On St. John, the siren in Cruz Bay is inoperable. On St. Croix, none of the four sirens are working.

Lewis said Thursday that the sirens on St. Croix have been down for about a week. The sirens in Havensight and Cruz Bay have probably been down for about two weeks, he said.

Lewis said he is concerned about the situation.

"The sirens were installed for a purpose," he said.

Lewis said he has put an urgency on obtaining the software technicians need to fix the problem.

However, with the government's cumbersome procurement process, getting the software to the territory may take some time.

The vendor, Lewis said, does not want to ship the software to the territory until a purchase order has been generated.

A requisition has been issued, and the time frame for the paperwork to wind its way through the government process and for a purchase order to be generated is likely a week or two, Lewis said.

"I expressed to them the urgency of the situation," he said.

VITEMA spokeswoman Christine Lett said that two packages of software, costing $1,492 each, for a total of $2,984, are needed for the fix. The purchase will be funded with a federal Homeland Security grant, Lewis said.

The requisition for the purchase order is currently with the V.I. Property and Procurement Department, Lett said.

Once the software arrives in the territory, technicians will then need to install it.

The 10 sirens that comprise the territory's tsunami warning system are just the first segment of what officials hope will become a comprehensive system that will blanket the territory's entire shoreline. Right now, with the system limited to 10 sirens when it is fully functional, only a few populous areas along the coastlines in each island district are covered.

Officials hope to expand the number of sirens if funding becomes available.

Tsunamis - created by a sudden large disturbance of ocean water, most often caused by an earthquake forcing an uplift in the sea floor - have struck the territory before.

In 1867, a series of tsunamis hit the Virgin Islands when a magnitude 7.5 earthquake shook the seabed between St. Thomas and St. Croix. Within minutes, the massive waves rushed ashore on both islands, killing a number of people.

Another deadly tsunami struck Puerto Rico in 1918 after an earthquake, killing dozens and doing extensive damage to that island's west end.

In both the 1867 and the 1918 tsunamis, the waves slammed into shorelines rapidly - within minutes of the earthquakes that generated them.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or e-mail jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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