On March 26, experts responsible for keeping America safe from tsunami dangers will be participating in LANTAX 19, an annual safety drill anchored by a hypothetical earthquake within the North Atlantic. At 8am ET tomorrow, the drill will begin with a simulated 8.5 earthquake located roughly 180 miles northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico. According to the National Weather Service’s Tsunami Warning Center, such a quake has the potential to generate a destructive tsunami across not only the Caribbean, but along large areas of the North America east coast from Flamingo, Florida north to Cape Chidley, Labrador, in Canada. Shortly after the earthquake, a Tsunami Advisory is issued for coastal areas of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Labrador. The exercise purpose is to provide emergency management with a realistic scenario to test their tsunami response plans. While most in the public shouldn’t be exposed to the simulation messages and alerts, it’s possible some alerts may inadvertently be released to the public. Even so, they will include the phrase “THIS IS ONLY AN EXERCISE.”
As the test evolves tomorrow, the intensity of the earthquake will be updated and tsunami advisories and messages will change as a result. Ultimately, the simulation yields a significant tsunami event up the U.S. East Coast, with a tsunami measuring from 2.9 feet around Atlantic City, NJ, to 6.9 feet in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. If such a tsunami were to occur, there would be risk to life and property along the coast.
While an 8.5 earthquake is extremely strong, and a tsunami could accompany such a quake, such a scenario could actually unfold in the Atlantic. Because of the possibility of a strong Atlantic-based earthquake and tsunami there, experts are participating in this drill to stay sharp should such a remote scenario actually come to fruition.
In the LANTAX 19 Participant Handbook, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Weather Service and the Tsunami Warning Center, describes the purpose of this annual exercise. “This tsunami exercise is being conducted to assist tsunami preparedness efforts along the U.S. and Canadian east coasts, the Gulf of Mexico coast, and in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Historical tsunami records from sources such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) show that approximately 85% of the world’s oceanic tsunamis occur in the Pacific Basin. While the historic occurrence of destructive tsunamis along the U.S. and Canadian Atlantic coasts suggests these events are rare, there are a few areas in the Atlantic basin where earthquakes occur that have the potential to develop destructive tsunamis that may impact the U.S./Canadian coast. These areas include the coasts of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the region east of the Azores Islands, and portions of the continental slope off the U.S. and Canadian coast due to sub-sea landslides. Lessons learned from the destructive Indian Ocean tsunami include that even areas rarely impacted by tsunamis can suffer tremendous damage and casualties if the people that live and/or travel in these areas are not prepared. Statistics from the NGDC tsunami database show that the U.S. Virgin Islands were struck by a tsunami up to 24 feet high in 1867 which killed 30 people. Over 140 people were killed in western Puerto Rico by a 18 foot tsunami in 1918. The Caribbean is a region of complex plate tectonic boundaries which provide the mechanism for earthquakes to trigger large tsunamis.”
According to NOAA, recent exercises in the Pacific Basin have proven effective in strengthening preparedness levels of emergency management organizations. They add, “Exercises like this will ensure that the U.S./Canadian Atlantic and Caribbean coasts are ready to respond in the unlikely case of a dangerous tsunami.”