Despite the timing of the event, within ten (10) minutes of accessing the information from the PTWC’s website, the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) of Belize was able to notify key first responders such as the Fire, Police, and other local authorities such as the NEMO Operational Committees and the Ministries of Works and Health, and activate the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC). The National Meteorological Service, which is the tsunami warning focal point for Belize, the official designated government agency to receive the tsunami bulletin information, also played an integral part having initially accessed the tsunami warning information and supported the NEOC functions. Fortunately, the tsunami did not materialize.
In speaking about the response to the earthquake event, and the tsunami warning from the PTWC which was in effect for thirty (30) minutes, Mrs. Noreen Fairweather, National Disaster Coordinator, NEMO commended her organisation’s rapid response time in the activation of the NEOC and disseminating the warning information. Given the proximity of the earthquake source to Belize, the low-lying nature of the coastline, and the major population centres and towns located on the Belizean coast, a tsunami impactwould have been devastating. In these vulnerable areas, the NEMO assisted by the Police and Fire officials, used sirens and radios to advise the populations of the imminent tsunami threat and to stay away from the coasts.
The NEMO Head also highlighted some of the key challenges faced, one of which was the electrical power outage in the Placencia Area of Stann Creek District, which limited the dissemination of the warning information by radio to populations in these affected areas. Most citizens were not aware of the nature of the earthquake and tsunami hazards or the necessary actions to be taken in the event of occurrence, and this also hampered the efforts of the authorities.
There are a number of regional and national activities which are being pursued to address some of the challenges experienced by the Belizean authorities and enhance preparedness for tsunamis and other coastal hazards in the Caribbean.
At the regional level, Belize is one of eighteen (18) Participating States which will continue to benefit from the Tsunami Smart Initiative being undertaken by the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA). As a beneficiary of the CDEMA implemented Tsunami and Other Coastal Hazards Warning System (TCHWS) Project 2007 – 2010, which was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Belize will receive a suite of generic and country-specific mutli-media public education products, as well as tools to support the development of protocols to guide local authorities in the receipt and dissemination of warning information.
The TCHWS Project’s public education materials include television and radio public service announcements, pamphlets, a media kit, a teacher’s resource kit and student’s workbook complete with teaching aids such as posters and an exciting Tsunami Warning Cartoon Booklet (please include link to the Resource Centre tab). A local communications specialist and educator from Belize have already benefitted from training in the development and use of these materials. Belize will be provided with a generic protocol to guide the processes of receipt and dissemination of tsunami and storm surge warning information, as well as a protocol development guide and public education strategy to further augment the capacity of the primary agencies within the local national disaster management system.
At the country level, through the collaboration of CDEMA and NEMO, key local stakeholders have received training through the Seismic Research Centre (SRC), University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. Other National Awareness/Training Orientations initiatives and the review of national policies and plans pertaining to earthquakes and tsunamis have been spearheaded by NEMO and further public awareness and education programmes are to be conducted.
The public education and policy development activities currently on the way for Belize, will support the comprehensive Tsunami and Other Coastal Hazards Warning System for the Caribbean and Adjacent Regions.The Belizean experience has indeed highlighted the vulnerable nature of our Caribbean States to tectonic activity and secondary hazards such as tsunamis, and CDEMA will continue to support the people and Governments of the region as we seek to enhance the resilience of our at-risk coastal communities.