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Students at North Side Primary 'duck, cover and hold' during an earthquake drill.

When you feel shaking, stay calm, move away from glass windows

Mr. Omar Afflick, Deputy Director of HMCI

Published 11th December 2008, 9:16am

December 14th marks the fourth anniversary of the 6.8 magnitude earthquake that occurred 20 miles south of George Town, Grand Cayman. The entire island shook and many people had no idea how to react. Up until that event, some people were not even aware that the Cayman Islands were vulnerable to the hazard of an earthquake.

The Cayman Islands geographical location places it on the tectonic plate boundary of the North America tectonic plate and the Caribbean plate. At this junction the Caribbean plate slides past to the east at a rate of a few inches a year. This may sound like a small distance, but tremendous forces and friction can build up when these plates grind along each other. It is the sudden release of this built up friction and energy that causes ground shaking - earthquakes. These occur with no warning. As recently as a month ago, an earthquake occurred less than 100 miles away; however, it was a small event and only measured as a magnitude four.

Since 1990 there have been four earthquakes that were magnitude six or more in the general area of the Cayman Islands. However there has never been a historically recorded earthquake of category 7 or above near Cayman and it is generally believed that we are at low risk of a serious event, but a risk exists nevertheless.

A seismic monitoring network is being set up with seismographs in Frank Sound and West Bay on Grand Cayman, and on Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. The Frank Sound station has already started recording earthquake activity.

Hazard Management Cayman Islands (HMCI) has been working to raise awareness about the potential threat of earthquakes and has been conducting earthquake sensitization sessions and earthquake drills in schools across the Cayman Islands. A poster competition is also underway with judging of the entries set for February next year.

So what can you do to make yourself safer from this threat? Earthquakes are not like hurricanes where you can see them on satellite images and receive warnings, but there are things you can do to protect yourself.

During the sensitization sessions in the schools, Deputy Director of HMCI, Mr. Omar Afflick demonstrates the response currently recommended by the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which advocates the 'duck, cover and hold' procedure.

"When you feel shaking, stay calm, move away from glass windows and duck under a heavy piece of furniture such as a desk or table and hold on. If there is nothing available for you to duck under, you should crouch close to the ground and cover your head with your arms. Do not run for the door and head outside, but if you are outdoors already you should move to an area which is open, where there are no trees, buildings or light poles that can potentially fall on you. If you are in a car, pull over to the side of the road."

Mr. Afflick added that "once the tremors stop, you should head outside to an open area and, if the earthquake was a strong event, it is highly recommended that you have an expert check the structural integrity of your building before going back inside. Sometimes earthquakes can be associated with broken gas lines and fires have been known to occur, so clearly you want to be aware of your surroundings, stay away from downed power lines and if you smell gas move away from the area."

Certain parts of buildings are considered better able to withstand the shaking effects associated with an earthquake. These include the corners of the structure and the door jams in concrete walls. "It is important to remember to brace yourself in the doorway or, if you are under a desk, hold on because the shaking can shift the piece of furniture away and expose your head," points out Mr. Afflick.

He highly recommends that people reduce the hazards in their own homes by ensuring that heavy objects that can fall, like bookcases, are anchored to the wall with screws. "Check that your televisions sets are secure as well. We have information on our website that will help you identify potential hazards so you can reduce the risks."

The Building Code contains a section that deals with earthquake resistant construction and companies like Apec Consulting Engineers Ltd have experts that can help advise you if you are considering a new development or retrofitting an existing structure.

If you are interested in learning more about earthquakes there is information available on the website www.caymanprepared.gov.ky. There are also 'hazard hunts' that are fun activities for children and there are earthquake brochures that are available and can be picked up from the HMCI office in the Corporate Centre on Hospital Road.