Home PR capital getting tsunami sirens
Issued : Tuesday, January 17, 2012 10:05 AM
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PR capital getting tsunami sirens

By CB Online Staff

Puerto Rico is setting up a tsunami alert system in densely populated San Juan.

San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini says experts warn that the island faces a very real threat from a tsunami, though the last one occurred in 1918. Santini says a network of sirens and a public education campaign are critical in case of an evacuation. San Juan received about $800,000 from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to set up the alert system.

Puerto Rico is in a seismically active zone. The island’s official seismic tracking center says one of the most powerful earthquakes in Puerto Rico history triggered the 1918 tsunami on the west coast. About 40 people were killed.

In the Atlantic north of the island lies the Puerto Rico Trench, a convergence zone where the North American plate sinks underneath Puerto Rico. In the south is the Muertos Trench, where the Caribbean plate sinks underneath Puerto Rico. Also, there are fault systems at the Mona Canyon, as well as in the Anegada Passage.

Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi introduced legislation in Congress last year that would direct the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to establish a tsunami forecasting and warning center in Puerto Rico.

The resident commissioner, the island’s sole representative in Congress, has long urged the U.S. Department of Commerce, which includes NOAA, to appropriate the funds necessary to establish, equip and operate a tsunami warning center at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez.

Currently, the only two tsunami warning centers in the United States are in the Pacific region. The one at Ewa Beach, Hawaii is responsible for issuing warnings for Hawaii, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and some 90 foreign jurisdictions. The other, at Palmer, Alaska, covers that sprawling state, the coasts of the U.S. mainland, Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

NOAA has been considering a tsunami warning center in Puerto Rico in recent months, and Gov. Luis Fortuño has pledged $6 million toward the construction of a facility at UPR Mayagüez. But NOAA would have to commit to staffing the center and contributing an additional $6 million for its construction.

Officials from NOAA and the National Weather Service (NWS) support efforts to establish a full-fledged center in Puerto Rico and the NWS has begun a phased-in approach to building the Puerto Rico-based center.

NWS official Bill Proenza said in March the phased-in approach to building the center should be fast-tracked.

Proenza, the NWS southern regional director, said tsunamis in the Atlantic Ocean only occur every 20 years or so, but they can be just as deadly as the one that hit Japan last spring.

Upon taking office, Pierluisi and Gov. Luis Fortuño stepped up lobbying for the federal government to set up a warning center in Puerto Rico to improve the detection and warning system for tsunamis in the Caribbean and the U.S. East Coast.

That effort gained steam after an NOAA study released in April 2010 listed Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and four Pacific states as the nation’s most susceptible to tsunamis and a panel commissioned by Congress found gaps and communications lapses in the U.S. tsunami warning system. The U.S. system warning of giant waves has improved since the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, but more work lies ahead, according to a 2010 analysis commissioned by Congress.

Earthquakes and undersea landslides pose the biggest tsunami threat to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, where warning periods can be shorter because of the relatively narrower expanses of sea than in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Temblors are not uncommon in Puerto Rico, with a moderate 5.4 earthquake rattling the San Juan area and much of the island on Christmas Eve 2010. A more powerful 5.7 temblor shook the island in May 2010. Neither prompted a tsunami warning.

Earthquakes caused tsunamis that affected Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Hispaniola in 1867, 1918 and 1946. Mayagüez and surrounding towns are especially vulnerable because they lie in an earthquake-prone zone and along the deep Mona Channel, where tsunamis have occurred in the past. In 1918, a tsunami caused by a large earthquake in the channel caused serious damage and killed dozens of people on the west coast of Puerto Rico.

NWS official Proenza, a former director of the National Hurricane Center, has noted the Caribbean region’s vulnerability to “short fuse” tsunamis, which can strike land within 10 to 15 minutes from detection.

Proenza and Florida Institute of Technology professor George Maul issued a report finding that the Caribbean has had six times more tsunami-caused deaths in the past 168 years than Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California combined.

The last serious tsunami in the area was in 1946, when almost 1,800 people were killed in the Dominican Republic. But the coastal areas were underdeveloped at the time; today, that number would be much higher, thanks to tourism and a larger population, Proenza said in a New York Times report.

“It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. It’s just where and when,” Proenza said. “Even though they may have more earthquakes in the Pacific Rim, when a tsunami occurs in the Caribbean, it yields more loss of life.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.