VITEMA releases new tsunami maps


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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency released tsunami maps Wednesday to help residents and visitors to the islands understand where the danger zones are and where safe ground can be found if a tsunami is on its way.

In a press conference at Government House, local and federal officials applauded the maps and said they would help people make plans with their families and in their workplaces in the event of a tsunami.

The maps show the islands with yellow areas around the coastlines - the tsunami danger zones - and green areas considered safe from a tsunami wave.

Tsunamis are huge waves triggered by earthquakes. The waves can be 100 feet tall and move at hundreds of miles per hour. The Caribbean is an area with many earthquakes, and therefore is highly vulnerable to the threat of tsunamis.

According to VITEMA, more than 3,500 people in the Caribbean have lost their lives to tsunamis since 1842.

In 1867, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake between St. Thomas and St. Croix created two tsunami waves that struck St. Thomas and St. Croix, according to the University of Southern California Tsunami Research Group. The wave was recorded at 40-feet tall at Water Island, 25-feet at St. Croix and 20-feet tall along the St. Thomas waterfront.

Christa von Hillebrandt, manager of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service Caribbean Tsunami Warning Program, said because tsunamis are rare, it is easy to forget about the very real threat facing the territory.

However, when the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami devastated several nations in the Indian Ocean, that threat became very real, she said. More than 225,000 people died, according to von Hillebrandt.

"It could have been us," she said. "It was, until then, a mostly forgotten hazard."

The largest tsunami wave recorded in the Caribbean was 60 feet high, so that information was used to determine where the lines on the maps should be drawn.

"A lot of people think there's no place to go," she said. "The Virgin Islands has a lot more safe areas than danger areas."

The maps show hospitals, major utilities and operations like the HOVENSA oil refinery on St. Croix - which is in the tsunami danger zone - airports, sea ports and public schools.

Victor Huérfano Moreno, interim director of the Puerto Rico Seismic Network, said the more the information is provided to the people, the more lives can be saved. If a tsunami is on its way, people only have a few minutes to respond. Giving residents and visitors as much preparation and education about what to do in such an emergency is key, he said.

"We know that the potential is there, so the question is not if but when," he said.

Tsunami researcher Roy Watlington said while the population in the territory has remained relatively flat and the tsunami threat has not changed, the potential impact is growing.

"What is growing the hazard is the use of the coast," he said. "The danger increases because we're using our coast more."

The maps are one of the last steps in a long process of moving the territory to receive a "TsumaniReady" status designation by NOAA.

VITEMA has already installed a state-of-the-art 911 system, tsunami sirens, tsunami evacuation route road signs, and implemented the V.I. Alert notification system. All of which is part of the territory's efforts to reach "TsunamiReady" status with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service.

Achieving TsunamiReady status could open up the territory to funding to continue the tsunami public education programs and conduct regular maintenance on the sirens and signs, according to VITEMA Director Elton Lewis.

VITEMA has been working closely with the National Weather Service's Caribbean Tsunami Warning Program to ensure the territory meets the program requirements.

Von Hillebrandt said she has received the territory's application for TsunamiReady status and it is under review.

If the territory is awarded the status, it will be the first state or territory to do so, she said.

Other areas or regions have been given the status, but not an entire state or territory.

According to VITEMA, the final requirement is to conduct a public education campaign, which already has begun.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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