By anguillian January 8, 2018 11:21 Updated



(This article was first published in The Anguillian newspaper on 14th December 2007. The 5.2 earthquake which shook us on 24th December 2017 is a reminder that we must be prepared.)


The bright and sunny afternoon of Thursday 29th November 2007 will remain etched in the memories of most Anguillians. They were going about merrily, doing their daily chores, when suddenly all hell broke loose. The island rocked like a cradle.

A young lady was sitting in her chair, at the Caribbean Beacon radio station, when she felt the chair shaking. She got up and on resting her hands on her desk found it shaking too. Then upon seeing some water in a bottle swaying she exclaimed: “JJ, it is an earthquake!” JJ said, “No, that ain’t no earthquake! It’s one of dem big trucks!” As the vibrating continued, there was a heavy rattling sound. At that point it appeared to the young lady as though the east wall of the radio station was about to meet the west wall and, with that, she took off with JJ bird-speed behind her.

Down at In Style Boutique, on the Cove Bay Road, Donie was chatting with her friend Blondina. She felt when the building shook. Blondina felt it too and said that it was some heavy equipment. The shaking got heavier and Donie exclaimed: “Blondina, I shaking!” and Blondina replied, “I shaking too!” It was then that they hurriedly made their way outside.

Frances was at the St Mary’s Anglican Church, in The Valley, attending the thanksgiving service for the life of Inez Webster. According to her, “The place was shaking. Shaking heavy. I was scared. Everybody was looking at the roof. Including me. I was thinking about going outside”.
Sylvene was at Chanelle’s house at Seafeathers. She heard a roaring sound and thought it was a jet which had just taken off from Wallblake Airport. Then the house shook vehemently. The chandeliers swayed freely and the vases rattled. It was an earthquake she reasoned and considered fleeing with her two grandsons. But the swaying ceased and she thanked God that her grandsons were alive and well.

Where was Chanelle when this was happening? She was shopping at Kimmey’s Fashion Boutique on the ground floor of the Fairplay Commercial Complex in The Valley. She suddenly got a funny feeling and wondered if something was wrong with her. Then, as the place shook, she asked: “Linda, what is this?” Linda responded, “Girl, it must be a helicopter!” By the time they realised that it was no helicopter, the workers on the top floor of the Complex, which swayed heavily, had already fled. When Chanelle and Linda saw them fleeing they fled too.

A lady was at a bakery in George Hill. She had just got back in her jeep when she felt it vibrating. The vibrations, she thought, were caused by two big trucks that were passing at the same time. However, after they passed, her jeep continued to vibrate so she reasoned that there were some workmen close by with heavy equipment. But she saw no workmen and concluded that it was a jet taking off. Not true again, so she went her way. Then, lo and behold, the jeep started swaying whereupon she figured she had a flat tyre. But there was no flat tyre. She continued driving not realising that she had felt an earthquake.

The members of staff of the Public Administration Department were at a meeting, all well seated around a table in their conference room. Out of nowhere, they heard a rumbling sound and “felt the room dancing”. Pris said it was heavy equipment. Sister Vee said, “That’s not heavy equipment! You can’t see the whole place moving? It’s an earthquake!” After two small tremors there was a bigger one and with that Charmaine bolted and the others followed. As they fled, Clarion remarked that “all the Christians are running away!” There was a quick response from one of them: “The Lord says you got to help yourself, and he will help you”.

Laura was at her home in North Side. Alone in bed. She was tired after completing most of her many chores. Out of the blue her bed started swaying. She thought it was her cat playing under the bed. But she quickly realised that it couldn’t be because she had left the cat outside. As the shaking got heavier she thought that there may have been some men working on a road nearby. Finally, it dawned on her that it was an earthquake. By then there was no need to run. The vibrating had stopped.

A young lady living on the Cove Road, West End, had just returned home from work. As she opened the door her “head was getting light”. She felt “dizzy, dizzy, dizzy”. Puzzled, she tried to figure out why her head “was getting on like that”. As she was doing so she became more confused because it appeared as though the refrigerator was moving towards her – the refrigerator seemed as if it was walking. Then all of a sudden the house shook most vehemently and she put two and two together and got: earthquake.

Indeed, when the news finally broke it was an underwater earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.4 on the Richter Scale, that had struck Anguilla. It struck at 3.00 pm local time. Its epicenter was located some 25 miles north-west of Fort-de-France, Martinique, at a depth of 90.4 miles. The earthquake was so powerful that its shockwaves were felt as far away as Guyana and Venezuela on the South American mainland – and throughout the eastern Caribbean, from Trinidad and Tobago in the south to Puerto Rico in the northwest. Incidentally, a man in The Valley was on his phone talking to a man in St Lucia who told him that he just felt an earthquake. No sooner had he said that than the man in Anguilla replied that he felt it too.

The earthquake’s shockwaves were widespread and caused some damage in Martinique and in other islands near its epicenter. The 29th of November 2007 could have been a tragic day for Caribbean people were it not for the fact that the earthquake’s epicenter was 90.4 miles deep. If it was nearer the surface it may have been catastrophic.

The earthquake was a wakeup call and a cause for much reflection. Reflection on how well we are prepared for disasters caused by earthquakes. Yes, we are prepared for hurricanes but when it comes to earthquakes we are far from being ready. We need to recognise that we are in an earthquake zone; that underwater earthquakes, like the one on 29th November, are capable of generating tsunamis and that tsunamis will come our way.

My research of Anguilla’s history tells me that this island was struck by two tsunamis. The first was in November 1755 when an earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, produced a tsunami which affected most Caribbean islands including Saba as well as St Martin where a sloop anchored in some 15 ft of water was left lying on its broadside on the dry seabed. There is no mention in the history books of the tsunami affecting Anguilla but, in my view, there is no way a tsunami could have struck St Martin and not Anguilla a mere 5 miles away. Of course, in those days Anguilla was little known which partly explains the reason for it not being mentioned. My interpretation of the historical data on the 1755 tsunami suggests that Anguilla was not spared its destructive waves.

The second tsunami to affect Anguilla occurred on 18th November 1867. It was triggered by a 7.5 earthquake which originated in the Anegada Trough which runs through the US Virgin Islands. There was considerable destruction, including the loss of life, in St Croix and St Thomas. The tsunami also sent waves all across the eastern Caribbean, as far south as Guadeloupe and Bequia, causing damage in varying degrees. St Kitts, St Martin and St Bartholomew and Saba, our next door neighbours, were also affected. Again the history books make no mention of Anguilla. However, with Anguilla being so close to the point of origin of the tsunami (the Anegada Trough) there was no way it could have escaped its destructive forces. And it did not escape them.
My conclusion has the support of Sir Emile Gumbs, a most reliable resource of our oral history. Shortly after the Asian tsunami, in 2004, he and I got into a discussion about tsunamis in the Caribbean and he related how his grandfather told him about one that struck Anguilla somewhere in the latter half of the late 1800s. And I was able to tell him that the tsunami occurred in 1867. Sir Emile’s grandfather recalled that the sea at Road Bay receded, leaving all the boats flat on the seabed, and when it came back in it rolled across Sandy Ground Village, destroyed several houses and killed an elderly woman whose body was later found somewhere east of the salt pond.
I want to make the point that Anguilla, like the rest of the Caribbean, is in the line of fire of a tsunami. And if there is one thing that all scientists agree on, it is that the Caribbean will be struck by another major tsunami. But they are unable to say when. The history of tsunamis in the Caribbean suggests that they occur every 50 years, the last major one being in 1946 (when 1,800 people were killed in the Dominican Republican). It is in light of that history that scientists are saying that a major tsunami is overdue and is coming.

Judging from the way Hurricane Lenny tore up our beaches, a strike by a tsunami could be most catastrophic. Anguilla is as flat as a table and is nothing for a major tsunami to walk over. But our abuse, over the years, of our coastal resources has made it extremely easy for a tsunami to walk over us without hindrance. Why do I say that?

We have destroyed our first line of defence: our reef systems. Reef systems are natural barriers that minimise the destructive power of waves – from hurricanes, tsunamis and other destructive tides – against the coastline. We have destroyed our second line of defence: our beaches. How? Firstly, when we destroyed the reefs across them, we opened up the beaches to the power of hurricane force waves. Secondly, by abusing the beaches. The indiscriminate removal of sand from several of them has left them severely damaged. Also, we bulldozed our beaches saying we are ‘developing’. We bulldozed our sand dunes. We flattened dem flat, flat, flat. Actually, it was our abuse of our beaches which allowed Lenny to treat them like toilet paper. Lenny left them in a serious mess.

Our abuse of our coastal resources makes Anguilla a classic case of domestic abuse. We have exploited her virgin resources and, in the process, tore off her clothes. We left her naked with nothing to protect her from the vagaries of natural disasters especially hurricanes and tsunamis. As regards tsunamis, I feel compelled to repeat that scientists have said that there is no doubt one is coming our way. That it is overdue. The unanswered question is: when?
The underwater earthquake of Thursday 29th November 2007 is a strong reminder of our vulnerability to tsunamis. We had dem before, and we goin have dem again. Armed with that kind of information we must hurriedly re-clothe Anguilla to avoid her, and her people, being annihilated.

The question is how do we go about doing the re-clothing? The answer: sooner rather than later, we have to plan and implement well-structured programmes for the restoration of our coastal resources. These programmes must include projects for reef restoration, dune restoration, beach restoration and shoreline protection. And they will certainly call for expert advice. Restoration programmes, of any kind, are always costly but it will be more costly if we do nothing.

If Anguilla and its people are to survive the ravages of natural disasters, like hurricanes and tsunamis, then Government must treat coastal restoration and protection as a developmental priority. Also, if the tourism industry on which we depend for economic survival is to be sustained then programmes for the restoration and protection of our coastal resources are paramount. These priority programmes should not be too difficult to implement now that Government’s coffers are full and running over. As a matter of fact, the same way we allocate funds for health, education and so forth, in our annual budget, is the same way we should allocate funds for coastal restoration and protection. To do otherwise will be to our detriment.

By anguillian January 8, 2018 11:21 Updated


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