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Tsunami alert test planned for Caribbean

Following the devastating tsunami that struck Japan, 33 countries are preparing to participate March 23 in the first full-scale simulated tsunami alert exercise in the Caribbean.

The goal is to test the Tsunami and other Coastal Hazards Warning System for the Caribbean and Adjacent Regions, which was established in 2005 by the countries of the region in collaboration with Unesco's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

According to the scenario developed by the organizers of the exercise, countries in the Caribbean will receive an alert concerning a fictitious 7.6-magnitude earthquake off the coast of the American Virgin Islands. Bulletins will be issued by the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center (United States) for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, for the rest of the area.

The exercise, named Caribe Wave 11, does not involve communities. It aims to test the effectiveness of alert, monitoring and warning systems among all the emergency management organizations (national focal points for tsunami alerts, weather forecast offices, national coast guard, etc.) throughout the region. The test is designed to determine whether Caribbean countries are ready to respond in the event of a dangerous tsunami.

Previous experience underlines the crucial importance of rapid transmission of information. It has also shown that national authorities must take risk into account at all levels, including education about hazards in schools, urban planning in coastal zones, modification of building codes and materials, evacuation plans for communities and organization of effective emergency services.

"The earthquake and tsunami that have devastated Japan have shown how essential alert systems are," said Unesco director-general Irina Bokova. "In this context the development of a coordinated system in the Caribbean is more relevant than ever, enabling coastal countries to prepare in the event of such a disaster and to save human lives."

During the last 500 years, 75 tsunamis have occurred in the Caribbean, according to Unesco. That figure represents about 10 percent of the entire number of oceanic tsunamis in the world during that period.