St. Thomas 𑁋 As nearby earthquakes continue to impact Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands remain on alert. At 9 a.m. on Saturday, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake occurred off the southwest coast of Puerto Rico, causing further damages to the island’s infrastructure. There are currently no tsunami watches or warnings issued for the U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico.
President Trump has issued an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico to assist the local government with repairing damaged infrastructure in affected areas.
The Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency has not announced a successful test of the territory’s tsunami warning system since the territory was impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. In November of 2018, the agency tested sirens in the territory and reported that the test ultimately failed — in June of 2019, VITEMA announced that repairs on the system would begin the same month.
While the audible system on the tsunami sirens failed to sound, other forms of alerts were successful as residents reported getting them on thier mobile devices, radio, and other mediums.
Tsunami Sirens in the Territory
“It’s been the same as anything else in the recovery,” VITEMA Director Daryl Jaschen said in a statement to The Virgin Islands Daily News earlier this week. “It’s a process we’re going through with FEMA and we’re now working with the V.I. Department of Property and Procurement to get the project going.”
According to a source close to VITEMA’s operations, Jaschen misled the public in his most recent statement to The Virgin Islands Daily News. The source, who was not authorized to speak on the matter publicly, confirmed that the Daily News’ reporting on the sirens being “inoperable” was, in fact, accurate but said that Jaschen had misled the public with the information regarding FEMA’s role in the process and progress the agency had made regarding repairs. Jaschen went on to say that American Signal Corporation is expected to begin construction on the new system next month, adding that the work will ultimately depend on how the territory receives “galvanized steel poles” to replace wooden poles.
American Signal Corporation was awarded the contract to repair the territory’s damaged warning systems in May of 2017, however, Jaschen’s proposed timeline and project projections reportedly do not align with what the agency has been working on internally, which has not been made public.
VITEMA’s director acknowledged that 44 of the territory’s tsunami warning sirens were not operational and added that nearly 40% of the siren towers were destroyed by hurricanes Irma and Maria. $1.6 million in federal funds are currently allocated to repair the damaged emergency systems on each island. The last tsunami to impact the Virgin Islands arrived 10 minutes after the earthquake — which happened between St. Thomas and St. Croix in 1867.
“Our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico continue to be devastated by earthquakes,” Jaschen said in a statement released by VITEMA on Saturday. “The U.S. Virgin Islands stands in solidarity with Puerto Rico and continues to keep the island in our thoughts and prayers.”
State of the Territory News was not able to confirm the validity of the director’s claim about repairs or the integrity of VITEMA’s timeline for procuring and repairing the sirens as Puerto Rico has been rocked by over 1,000 earthquakes and aftershocks since December.
“Residents are advised to stay informed and continue to assess your preparedness to quickly respond should a major earthquake impact the territory. If we all do something today to prepare for these threats, we will be in a better position to recover and preserve life and property in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Jaschen said. “The team at VITEMA remains ready to respond should the territory become impacted.”
Utilizing the First Responders as a Contingency
Police officers in Frederiksted made rounds in 2018 and used emergency vehicles to warn residents of a possible tsunami threat that could impact the territory. This happened following a tsunami alert that was issued for the Caribbean after 7.6-magnitude struck Honduras.
The practice of utilizing emergency vehicles to warn residents and visitors is not standard practice, however, it could be used in the interim while the agency works to repair tsunami sirens. In 2018 officers alerted residents to move to hirer grown. This could also work for residents who don’t have mobile phones or access to other forms of communication to receive updates. While VITEMA noted that this is not standard practice, the plan could potentially save lives while new sirens are being installed if a tsunami does strike the territory.
With sirens possibly out of operations for months, and with residents on the west end of St. Thomas and residents on St. Croix reporting minor earthquakes, the Virgin Islands could find itself in a precarious situation if a tsunami threat arises and contingency plans fail.
According to VITEMA, it’s possible that the territory could begin repairs to the damaged sirens soon but those sirens may not be operational by year’s end. VITEMA has not shared details on progress made with Property and Procurement, who will play a major role in acquiring the materials needed for VITEMA and federal partners to begin repairing and deploying new emergency warning systems on St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix.
However, VITEMA continues to provide residents with real-time alerts and updates through other mediums. Emergency preparedness and response information is provided on Alert VI, the Agency’s website www.vitema.vi.gov, on Facebook at “VITEMA,” Instagram at “vitema_usvi” and on Twitter at “readyusvi.” Earthquake preparedness and response information is provided to local radio stations and the local media on an ongoing basis.
On Thursday, VITEMA met with territorial first responders, including island administrators, the Department of Public Works, Department of Human Services, Department of Education, Office of Collective Bargaining, V.I. Fire Services, V.I. Police Department and Project Director of the Ocean and Coastal Observing – Virgin Islands, Dr. Roy A. Watlington, to discuss earthquake and tsunami preparation and response for the territory.
Emergency Tips from VITEMA
Earthquakes can happen without warning and result in injuries and damages to property and infrastructure. Now is the best time to prepare for any disaster before it happens. Disasters do not plan ahead, but we can. VITEMA is issuing the following tips:
- Secure heavy items in your home like bookcases, refrigerators, televisions, and objects that hang on walls. Store heavy and breakable objects on low shelves.
- Create a family emergency communication plan and ensure everyone in your household knows where to meet if you get separated. Share emergency plans with your neighbors and combine plans whenever possible.
- Stay informed of emergencies impacting the territory by registering for Alert VI at www.vitema.vi.gov today.
- Practice “drop, cover, and hold on” earthquake response procedures with all family members.
- Drop: Drop wherever you are on your hands and knees. If you’re using a wheelchair or walker with a seat, make sure your wheels are locked and remain seated until the shaking stops.
- Cover: Cover your head and neck with your arms. If a sturdy table or desk is nearby, crawl underneath it for shelter.
- Hold on: If you are under a table or desk, hold on with one hand and be ready to move with it if it moves.
- Prepare a supply kit that includes enough food and water for at least 10 days. Consider each person’s specific needs, including medication. Store critical documents in a watertight container. Have extra batteries and charging devices for phones and other critical equipment. Do not forget the needs of pets.
- Consider obtaining an earthquake insurance policy. A standard homeowner’s insurance policy does not cover earthquake damage.
Update: A previous version of this report stated that VITEMA would use police officers to warn the public if a tsunami alert was issued for the U.S. Virgin Islands. The article was updated to note that while police did aid in evacuating residents on St. Croix in 2018, this is not standard procedure for VITEMA.