Tsunami Scare Sends Belizeans Scrambling For The Hills
Last night at nine minutes to 9:00, you probably felt the earth, or the floor of your house shaking. That was a major earthquake in the waters hundreds of miles from Belize City sending tremors right into your living room.
And while that caused only a slight disturbance, it's the aftermath that's making news tonight: by 9:00 PM, the National Weather Center in the US had sent out a tsunami alert for all land-masses within a one thousand kilometer radius of the earthquake's center.
The warning was that the first wave of a tsunami could be reaching Belize by 10:30 pm.
As Courtney Weatherburne reports, that news sent a flood of panic all along the coast: â€¦
The sharp-pitched sirens from the fire truck reverberated through city streets â€“ signaling Belize's first full-fledged Tsunami alert.
That alert came after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake shook the northern coast of Honduras. It hit east of the Great Swan Island â€“ and Belizeans surely felt the aftershock.
Carol Pastor - Dangriga Resident
"This was around 9:00, what happened I was in my living room; my son watching TV and the next thing we knew we were just like shaking, moving, rocking and my son said mommy is that an earthquake?"
"So the entire house was shaking?"
"Yes and this is what I was so surprised because here I said we are in a concrete house, solid foundation and when I say rocking, rocking!"
Other parts of the Caribbean and Central America felt the tremor too and Tsunami alerts were issued in Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Guatemala and more.
According to this map, Belize was 303 miles from the center and on the ground in Belize City and in the Cayes, the effects were seen as the waters receded.
That sent waves of terror through coastal communities. They were scrambling about to get fuel. Everyone along the coast were trying to get inland â€“ bracing for the crashing waves that were expected to come.
The streets were desolate and the air tense. But at 10:52, the Tsunami alert was lifted and NEMO gave the all clear for residents to return to their homes. Now while it was just a scare, many still shudder at the thought of a Tsunami ever hitting Belize.
"I live Far Rockaway and in New York and in 2012 we had Sandy so I know what water could, the water damaging and not only because I live in Far Rockaway its even closer to the beach than I live here so I knew the devastation of it, it is nothing nice."
By midnight, the waters were coming slowly back to the shore - and everything was back to normal. There was no tsunami in any of the countries within the threat zone. In Honduras, waters went out 10 to 15 feet from the coast, and did not return to regular levels until this morning.
Notably, the Tsunami Center says that a wave with a, quote, "maximum tsunami height" of 1.2 inches was recorded one a sea level gauge at Carrie Bowe Caye - which is east of Sittee River.
MET Office Says Tsunami Center Gave Them The Call
So, while the Tsunami warning turned out to be a scare and not a catastrophe, the fact is NEMO and the National Met Office couldn't simply dismiss a warning coming out of the Tsunami Warning Center.
Today, the Chief Meteorologist told us about the warning they got, and why her office was duty bound to ring the emergency bell at such short notice:
Catherine Cumberbatch - Chief Meteorologist
"A tremor was felt across the country last night, the data we gathered from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center shows that there was an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 that hit off Swan Island. That's just north of Honduras, and that had a depth of like say 20 miles - was the depth of that earthquake. It hit at around 8:52 p.m., local time, and we received the first message from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center like 6 minutes after. We received the first Tsunami message which shows that there was a Tsunami warning for the entire coast of Belize, and if that wave - that wave was forecasted to reach us around 10:30 p.m. the same night."
"At 8:58, I informed the National Emergency Management Coordinator - that's Col. Defour. At 9, he received that bulletin, all evidence is on the computer. He received that bullet at 3 minutes past 9. Thereafter, I called the Minister, Hon. Edmond Castro, informing Love FM. Information was disseminated away to the Love FM. They called. From there, we heard the sirens were kicked off. I don't know how familiar everyone was with the sirens, but the word was spread easily and quickly through the different media houses that a Tsunami warning was out for the coast of Belize."
"When we got another update - that was like 26 minutes after the first, they gave us an indication what the forecasted height of the wave would have been, and they were suggesting that the wave, upon reaching our area would be like 0.3 to 1 meters above the normal tide, which would bring it like 3 feet above the normal tide, if it would have reached. And [it] all depends on the force of which the wave would have come in, how far inland it would affect. But, it would have affected mostly just the coastal areas of the country, because as it impacts the land, it would start to - the wave would start to fall apart."
"The Tsunami wave did not reach us, and at 10:52 p.m. the Pacific Tsunami Center issued its final bulletin stating that all threats was lifted were lifted from the two remaining countries that were under threat, which were Belize and Honduras, and that the possibility of a tsunami wave for those 2 countries, Belize and Honduras, was not possible again. This is one thing that you cannot forecast, and as I said, the Pacific Tsunami Center, they are the ones who does the monitoring."
"It must be a comforting to you that the population of Belize takes the warnings of your office and NEMO very seriously."
"It is. That means what we are doing is being catching to people. People are taking in what we are actually doing, and what we are issuing and to head from any warning, and any advice coming from those 2 institution."
And you may have been one of those persons who went to the sea side to check to see if the sea was receding.
We've seen dozens of pictures taken all along the coast which capture the waters receding, going way back, leaving boats in the cayes on dry land - as if the sea was preparing to roll back with a huge surge. Today, the Chief Met Officer told us that what you saw from Belize City to Corozal was not caused by the Tsunami that was expected to make landfall in Belize. She said that it was caused by a spring tide, and here's how she explained it:
Catherine Cumberbatch - Chief Meteorologist
"Normally, it is said that whenever a Tsunami wave is coming, one of the first indications that you would get is that the water would start to recede. I don't know many people really observed - it's just when something happened, then observation would normally take place, but if you - I can recall over the past few days, the water in Belize was receding, and one of the main causes of that receding of the water, which took place last night - and people said, oh, yes, now, the water is receding, that means that the wave is coming. What we had is what we call a spring tide. And what is a spring tide? A spring tide is when you have largest difference between the high tide and the low tide, and that usually occurs after when you have a full moon and a new moon. And if you can recall, if you were observing, in the beginning of the month, is when we had a full moon. So, after that, the tide difference between the high and the low was very large, and this usually occurs when the earth, the moon, and the sun are aligned together. So, their gravitational force is extremely strong on our earth water body. So, that's why you had that great gap. The water receding in Belize was not from the Tsunami. It was from the spring tide."
According to Cumberbatch, if a Tsunami should hit Belize, the sea would have pulled in far more than those few feet that we saw last night along the coast and in the cayes.
Tsunami Scare? Get Outta Here!
While the MET office and the NEMO Minister had the official take on the earthquake and tsunami threat, what was it like for you?
This morning we took the streets and found out that some people took the threat very seriously while others just relied upon the man upstairs for protection.
"Mommy I feel the earthquake."
"Where were you?"
"Did you see anything moving, what did you do?"
"I saw I was shaking..."
"Did you hear about the Tsunami, you moved for that or you stayed at home?"
"Actually I stayed there because even if it comes you could never what could happen if you go shelter somewhere directly I go there and things might be more dangerous right there so I just wait."
"Where were you?"
"I was right home. When I felt the earthquake I felt so bad I don't know what to do. The pinki come and tell me ma earthquake I said Jesus Christ we must will dead now."
"After that they said Tsunami is coming, what did you do, did you stay home, did you evacuate?"
"I stayed home, I never did gone nowhere because I'm afraid of thieves because directly you go somewhere when you see everything is gone from your house so me and my children stay outside for a little while then they said it gone, all kind thing they say but anyways."
"I was watching TV and I see the Christmas tree because it is still up start to shake and then I gone on the verandah and I look at the lamp post and I see it the shake so I know it was an earthquake and then I gone back to sit down and afterwards my husband called me because he was at work and he told me that they are giving Tsunami warning watch and I put on Love FM and then I start to follow it and I get up and I start to think my plan like get little documents and whatever money I have and a piece of clothes and my grand baby, worrying about my grand baby in Ladyville. We went for her and her grandmother and we were going to Belmopan through the Boom cutoff. We were by the prison area and then they said the warning lift and so we turned back."
"Where were you, were you at home?"
"Yeah around my table the eat, had supper."
"Then what things started to shake?"
"Yes I notice the decoration on the Christmas tree shaking so I tell my ma look here what is happening here, she said an earthquake. Little while after that we hear a Tsunami warning."
"What did you do for the Tsunami warning?"
"Stayed home, I had no intentions of going anywhere. Belize is blessed."
"I hardly felt it."
"You knew about the Tsunami warning right? What did you do stay home?"
"I'm filled with the spirit, I'm a god person. If you filled with god you no make anything bother you."
"I travel with bad heart and my heart gone from this side to this one right (laugh)."
"What you did for the Tsunami though?"
"I get down on my house on my knees and pray for the sins that I do."
"Were you sleeping?"
"I was at Long Caye close to Half Moon Caye."
"But then the Tsunami warning came in so is that concerning to you being on a caye?"
"A little so we got on our phone and we checked on the news and stuff."
"Okay and did you have anywhere to shelter?"
"Yeah we had some buildings so we monitored the tide."
"How was the tide?"
"It just went down a few inches."
"Not a hell god damn earthquake come to Belize, I no feel nothing."
"You never feel it?"
"You were in the city?"
"You feel it?"
"I felt it."
"I no feel nothing I was right home, I no feel god not even a hand shake me, nothing move."
"Okay then you heard about the Tsunami warning you stayed home?"
"I done know that is lone fallacy that people like talk about because nothing that is in the media in Belize say is true, so I don't believe in those, its lone false alarm."
"I was at home sitting on my chair. I just saw the chair shaking and I asked my lady if she heard what was taking place, she told me she didn't hear anything but at the same time I told her it was a tremor."
"And then the Tsunami warning, you guys evacuate or you stayed?"
"We had to evacuate because we were in a low building."
"I was at home."
"Did you see things start to shake?"
"Curtains, things, my house, lamp post, wires."
"And then the Tsunami warning came did you evacuate or you stayed home?"
"I left, I wasn't going to wait for nothing, take no chances on that, I left."
"I stayed home."
"You have a two story or a one story?"
"One and you stayed home?"
"Yes I stayed right home."
"So the earthquake you saw things shaking?"
"Okay excellent thank you miss."
"I stayed at my house."
"You never moved?"
"No, my mom lives in a high house so I stayed right there."
"And then the Tsunami warning was out, what did you do, did you move or you stayed home?"
"We stayed home but we just got everything packed in case anything and we never really feel no way but people were, everybody was moving out."
Could Reef Mitigate Tsunami Damage?
At the top of the news, we had all the coverage on the tsunami scare from last night.
That natural disaster didn't hit us, but if it did, could the barrier reef have mitigated it by reducing the strength of the surge? Today we asked leading figures in the marine conservation community, and they told us that the barrier reef doesn't have the name "barrier" for nothing:
Janelle Chanona - VP, Oceana Belize
"The coral reef that we have, the Barrier Reef, it really lives up to its name in terms of being a first line of defense, a barrier to strong wave action, storm surges, etc. We also have the benefit of our mangrove role because they also play a very crucial role in really - and there are incredible videos that document this. What they can break down in terms of wave action is incredible. But I think that if you look at the percentage that has been documented for just coral reefs, they can absorb more 95% of the wave's action. So, you think about the energy that comes into that coral reef, what comes after it is nothing in comparison to what it is. So, whenever we have hurricanes, very strong storms, things like tsunami warnings, certainly, we should take comfort in the fact that the Belize Barrier Reef is there, and the mangroves that we have in place - we can also always look at replanting more mangroves to help maintain structures and to play that critical role in these types of event."
Dr. Melanie McField - Director, Healthy Reefs Initative
"It creates friction in the water, and it slows down the forces of the water. It won't stop - it's not gonna prevent water from coming through, but it dampens the force of the water. It's tremendous. It's amazing the power of that. Even sea grass has a dampening effect on water moving in preventing storm surge and erosion. So, mangroves, reef and sea grass altogether are helping. And these things need to be alive, so they can sustain themselves."
The Fault In Our South
And while the reef is a mitigating factor - an aggravating factor is what is known as the Motagua fault and the Swan Islands transform fault. That's what's called a plate boundary between the North American and Caribbean plates, which has a history of rupturing in large earthquakes. In 2009 an earthquake along that same fault line caused a magnitude 7.3 quake which shook up southern Belize and badly damaged Monkey River and communities in the Toledo District.
That's when we spoke to Geologist Andre Cho by telephone. He told us that the reality is that Belize sits in an earthquake zone:â€¦
FILE: May 29, 2009
Andre Cho, Geologist
"Belize lies on the North American Tectonic Plate, Central America and the Caribbean Plate and there is a transformed plate boundary down there that is sliding, the two plates are sliding cross each other and so it cause faults in the rocks and as the rocks are sliding each other, friction holds them together and so energy is being built up in there and when the energy overcomes the friction it breaks the rocks and causes the energy to be released in the form of an earthquake. So once that energy has been released the major earthquake has passed and then like I said you will normally experience some tremors for some time after. Another earthquake won't occur again until that same scenario where it is built up again and then violently released."
"Are earthquakes a reality that we will now have to live with?"
"Yes it has always been so. because like I said we are right near to a plate boundary, the transplant plate boundary between the North American and Caribbean plate. Historically we just haven't experienced large earthquakes like this one or larger but we have always been in an earthquake prone zone and so an earthquake is a real hazard that we live with and we need to be prepared for."
Firemen Sounded The Alarm Along Coastal Communities
And while NEMO got props, the same should be given to the Fire Department. Last night when many along the coast were scrambling to get out of town, they were on the job, raising the alarm along the coast with sirens - urging seafront residents to seek higher ground.
And, it was not just in Belize City the fire departments all over the coast were doing the same and according to fire chief Ted Smith, this is an operating procedure they have had for a while so they were prepared.
Ted Smith - Fire Chief
"The national fire service being a part of the National Emergency Management Organization work hand in hand with the department of NEMO. We have a standing operating procedure where once a tsunami warning is given for the coast or a specific portion of Belize then the fire service pan will kick in which is to blow all the major big sirens on the structure as well as have the units within the area traverse that area that are blowing the sirens and warning the people of the imminent disaster or of the disaster that may have occurred. That is what we did. We activated that plan last night. We had all our stations on the coast going around blowing that siren up and down warning people that there is pending danger coming."
Tsunami Warning Mobilizes Belize Emergency Response Authorities
The NEMO Coordinator for San Pedro Town Vanessa Parham reported on the preparedness and response time of the San Pedro Emergency Operation Committee (EOC). “Despite the short time period, I do believe my team and I responded in a very effective way to the situation. Alongside with Mayor Daniel Guerrero, the first thing I did was to warn the authorities on the island and the residents of the island through the local radio station and then proceeded by warning everyone with sirens. The high school was opened to serve as a shelter. The precautionary measures that I suggested were for everyone to get to higher grounds and to take the necessary items with them. There was no way we could have evacuated off the island in less than two hours.” She further said, “I do believe there is room for improvement, as all disasters come with different characteristics. I want to thank all the EOC members and key volunteers from both San Pedro and Caye Caulker for their effective response as we continue to serve our community in protecting life and property.”
Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos in the San Pedro Sun