A street in Kingston following the 1907 quake.
Credit: National Library of Jamaica
The Caribbean Trembles
By Kathy Barrett
The Haiti earthquake was a reminder that the beautiful Caribbean is one of the planet's most geologically active zones.
KINGSTON, Mar 22 (Tierramérica).- Better known for its hurricanes, the region that extends from the Cayman Islands in the west to the chain of Windward and Leeward islands is home to one of the earth's principal seismic belts.
With 7,000 islands, islets, reefs and cays, the Caribbean has deep sea trenches and fault zones between tectonic plates in which stresses lead to earthquakes like the one that struck Haiti on Jan. 12.
"The Caribbean is very complicated... It's small to start with, but you have everything in plate tectonics in this very small region," says Jian Lin, a geophysicist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the United States.
The quake that rocked the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince is now listed as one of the most devastating to hit the region and has prompted Caribbean governments to mobilize for prevention.
According to Joan Latchman, seismologist at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Seismic Research Centre, powerful quakes are part of the Caribbean's history.
"The hazard is real... what we have seen in the past will continue in the future because the plates continue to move," she said.
Jamaica has had its fair share of tremors. In 1692, then-capital Port Royal, located east of Kingston, was destroyed by a massive earthquake. What is left is a tranquil fishing village.
In 1907 it was Kingston's turn. The Jamaica Institution of Engineers says at least 70 percent of structures in the capital would be seriously damaged or destroyed if an 8.8 magnitude earthquake - like the Feb. 27 quake that hit Chile - were to strike.
The island nation's construction code is 102 years old, crafted one year after the 1907 earthquake. In 1983 an effort was made to develop a revised building code, but ended up only as a policy document, engineer Noel DaCosta told Tierramérica.
He says the work on a new building code, which began in 2003, has been completed and is awaiting action. "Our thrust now is to get a pact that will enshrine the use of the building code... unless it is made mandatory we will be back to where we were in 1983."
The 1908 standard means that steel is an integral component in construction, however DaCosta says that different building codes are being used in local construction, depending on the people doing the work.
The Jamaican building code is one issue to contend with, but according to veteran journalist and environmentalist John Maxwell, the real risk lies in the location of the buildings.
"Most of the Liguanea plain (where Kingston is situated) is a deposit of alluvial clay with a lot of water in it. Much of that substructure is very unstable," Maxwell told Tierramérica.
"The problem in Jamaica is not the buildings collapsing, but sinking in the soil...they could be swallowed up," Maxwell said.
Latchman's diagnosis of the Caribbean is "a high density population in an area that experienced extremely strong quakes along with the poor construction." She recommends looking at what Japan has done in terms of disaster prevention.
Japan has high-magnitude quakes more regularly than the Caribbean does, suffers less destruction because they have learned from their experiences and they have adapted their development to this danger, she said.
In the eastern Caribbean, all islands are within 200 kilometers of past earthquake sites that have suffered important damage.
Reality hit home in Dominica when on Nov. 21, 2004 the island was shaken by a temblor that triggered mudslides in a zone already hit by heavy rains.
Now as Haiti mourns the deaths of more than 220,000 people, Dominica's government is focusing on a new, solid building code.
"We have a building code that is mostly directed at making our buildings hurricane-proof. We are paying more attention to making our buildings less prone to collapse from earthquakes, but making them earthquake-proof requires tremendous technology and is expensive," said Interior Minister Charles Savarin.
In Trinidad and Tobago, when it comes to construction, the twin island state could be as vulnerable as Haiti.
"If we were hit by a magnitude 8 earthquake, at least three-quarters of Trinidad and Tobago's buildings would be destroyed," says Richard Clarke, lecturer in civil engineering at UWI.
The petrochemical industry, Trinidad's main foreign exchange earner, could also be the country's greatest downfall if and when an earthquake hits. George Robinson, head of the Office of Disaster Preparedness & Management (ODPM), believes there would be huge explosions and raging fires from leaks of the many natural pipelines that crisscross the island.
Although there are no official estimates, according to Clarke, the death toll could be at least 30,000, with thousands more injured.
The Cayman Islands, despite the relatively low risk of earthquakes, have a network of four seismic monitoring stations.
Cayman authorities predict that their system will be linked to a Caribbean-wide earthquake monitoring and reporting network capable of providing immediate data.
Over the past 500 years, there have been 105 tsunami events reported in the Caribbean and neighboring areas. Today, with nearly 20 million people living in this tourist destination and a major earthquake occurring on average every 50 years, scientists say it is not a question of if a major tsunami will happen, but when.
The fifth meeting in mid-March of the Inter-governmental Coordination Group for the Tsunami and other Coastal Hazards Warning System for the Caribbean and Adjacent Regions, resolved to organize a tsunami readiness drill in March 2011.
* IPS correspondent.