Can Jamaica Withstand Another Major Earthquake?

A section of earthquake-damaged Haiti

Last January, head of the Earthquake Unit at the University of the West Indies, Dr Lyndon Brown, predicted that Jamaica is due to experience an earthquake of the same magnitude as one that sank a section of Port Royal 321 years ago. Reports vary, but many suggest that the quake measured 7.5 on the moment magnitude scale. This scale is used by seismologists to measure the size of an earthquake in terms of the energy released.

In April, another expert – American geophysics professor Eric Calais of Purdue University, warned that “Jamaica will most likely be exposed to a quake with a magnitude of seven or 7.5 and capable of widespread, heavy damage.”

While no one can accurately predict when next such a disaster will strike, Jamaica does have a history of severe earthquake damage dating back to 1667. Based on this unpredictability, it is difficult to really prepare for an earthquake, in the way one would make preparations for a hurricane. However, steps can be taken to help you and your family be as safe as possible.

Today, we found out that sections of Kingston and St Andrew, where a huge portion of Jamaica’s population resides and works, is under-prepared for such an occurrence. Buildings housing fire and police stations and health centres in the city were mapped in 2012 and the results are alarming – only one facility would remain standing following a magnitude 7 earthquake.

The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) is now working with the Earthquake Unit and other relevant agencies “to either retrofit those existing buildings that we have or to abandon them altogether and find more suitable locations” while plans are said to be in place to screen other buildings.

We did a little more diGging and found that the mapping activity is part of ODPEM’s ongoing efforts to assess Jamaica’s readiness for such a major disaster. According to director of mitigation, planning and research, Karema Aikens-Mitchell, ODPEM conducted two months of earthquake simulation activities last year to determine how well the education, tourism and transport sectors could cope, as well as continuity of government in the wake of such a disaster.

Aikens-Mitchell noted that mapping exercises and risk assessment activities were also done in Annatto Bay in Portland and Falmouth, Trelawny and will be further spread across the island as funds become available. Additionally, ODPEM is also drafting a national search and rescue plan, which didn’t exist before the simulation activities.

How do you think Jamaica will fare in the event of a major earthquake? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.