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National tsunami expert shares lifesaving advice

The Virgin Islands Daily News — Jonathan Austin The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas

May 18--Patrick Corcoran, a coastal hazards specialist at Oregon State University, says residents of the territory must be able to recognize the signs of a tsunami regardless of whether they hear warning sirens.

The advice comes as a full-scale tsunami simulation is under way involving territory emergency management and more than 1,000 members of the military.

The training involves reaction to a magnitude-7.5 earthquake in the Anegada trough that triggers a 20-foot-tall tsunami hitting St. Thomas and St. Croix.

Corcoran said few people understand what a tsunami can do.

"When we haven't experienced something we just have cartoons in our mind about what it may be like. We do not have a lot of direct, personal experience of that," Corcoran said.

Residents should not get caught up in asking: 'Am I safe here where the elevation is 23 feet above sea level, or here, where I am 43 feet above sea level?' he said.

"Look at the video from Sumatra and Japan. What you can imagine, is what can happen," he said.

Corcoran was referring to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that triggered a series of devastating tsunamis and killed more than 230,000 people, and the 2011 Japan tsunami that killed 15,894 people and destroyed a nuclear power plant.

When it comes to tsunamis, land that is more developed is more vulnerable, Corcoran said.

On St. Croix, a powerful tsunami could scour Christiansted and Frederiksted. On St. Thomas, the low-lying areas facing St. Thomas Harbor would be at risk, as well as Red Hook and other East End development. The airports on both islands could be destroyed.

How can residents better survive such a catastrophe?

Corcoran said preparation for hurricanes helps territory residents be prepared for much worse.

"The basic questions are, do you have a hurricane go bag? Do you have conversations with your family about, in the unlikely event of -- whatever? I think hurricanes down there are a good opportunity to talk about that, and I am sure you are prepared, and have strategies," he said.

"But basically, it's get out of the way" when it comes to a tsunami, Corcoran said.

It happened before

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

Another deadly tsunami struck Puerto Rico in 1918 after an earthquake, killing dozens and doing extensive damage to the 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 -- leaving minimal time for warnings.

Move and hunker down

"Get out of the way and hunker down until it stops. The better everybody knows that, the fewer fatalities there will be," Corcoran said.

"It's likely you're going to feel the earthquake. The most critical thing for people to understand is, if you ever feel an earthquake at the coast -- the beach -- that is a natural warning to get to high ground as soon as you can, whether you hear a siren or not," he said.

Christine Lett, a spokeswoman for the Virgin Islands Emergency Management Agency, said the siren warning system in the territory is "activated by 911 personnel who are trained on how and when to trigger the siren system. 911 personnel can also voice an alert. This cover incidents where we have to give very specific alerts or instructions to the public. The system is computerized, but it is not programmed to be triggered automatically by any event."

Most territory residents are aware of the earthquake fault just offshore. "At least you have a pulse of an earthquake culture," Corcoran said. "Someday, maybe not in your lifetime, but one day, that population will experience an earthquake that everybody will likely feel, and that needs to be their natural warning that, hey, a tsunami may very well be generated and on its way. Right now," Corcoran said.

"So, get to high ground. How high? As high as you can reasonably get. Wait for how long? Until the tsunami arrives on shore. If it didn't generate one, you'll know pretty much within an hour or so. It's better that you ran up to a neighborhood and freaked out with everybody else for an hour and be fine, than to be caught" in the devastation, he said.

"Fatalities will occur. It's inevitable. The more we develop the exposed areas, the more fatalities there are going to be, if that development includes high-density residential, which it almost always does," Corcoran said.

Use your experience

Hurricanes have taught the people of the territory a "basic level of preparedness," Corcoran said. "That alone will be 80 percent of the things you need" for a truly catastrophic event like a 20-foot-tall tsunami. Having a basic survival plan and communicating it with family is key, he said. "Take a look at where you live, work, play, pray, shop, and have some sense of, in a catastrophe, what's our plan?" he said.

"Talk about it every once in a while. Keep that go bag somewhat refreshed. It matters less to me what's in it, than the fact that people consciously think about having some supplies where they need them," he said.

A key, though, is to react to a tsunami warning immediately, and having each person react to save their own life, he said.

"People need to understand: If you feel the biggest earthquake of your life, get to high ground as soon as you can, get out of there," Corcoran said. "Going to get the kids is absolutely the wrong thing" because you won't have time. "You must have had a conversation with them about getting to high ground." Let them perform as planned, or if at a higher place, to stay put, he said.

"React from where you are. That's an absolutely critical point," Corcoran said. If your children are at school, "your discipline has to be, 'I trust the school to do the right thing. They practice it.'" He said.

"If we all do the right thing, then the next day we'll be able to hug each other."


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