The threat of a tsunami along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica this week left chaos, not destruction, in its wake.
To the relief of tens of thousands of coastal residents and tourists who fled homes, hotels and other businesses up and down the west coast, the warnings were called off a couple hours after they were issued Wednesday night.
And while emergency response workers say the country earned high marks for its performance under pressure, others say weaknesses in the system are apparent.
Experts hope this dry run will lead to more funding, research and political will to help the country become better prepared to face such disasters in the future.
“We’re very happy with the country’s response … people calmly moved away from the coast,” said National Emergency Commission (CNE) president Daniel Gallardo. He praised the media for their work in alerting the population, and members of the Red Cross,National Police and Firefighters Corps for helping people evacuate.
“This was an important demonstration that the country is informed, disciplined and able to take action,” Gallardo said.
A magnitude 7.9 earthquake in Peru Wednesday afternoon prompted the HawaiibasedPacificTsunamiWarningCenter, part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to issue a tsunami alert for the entire Pacific coast of South and Central America.
Costa Rica’s Emergency Commission quickly got the word out via radio and TV news that a tidal wave was likely to hit Tico soil at approximately 9:20 p.m.
People in low-lying coastal areas – anywhere within 500 meters of the ocean – were advised to evacuate.
Within two hours, word trickled through the country that it was a false alarm. The U.S. center cancelled all warnings, but continued to monitor sea levels “just in case” anything developed, said the center’s oceanographer Dailin Wang.
By that time, beach communities along the coast had already emptied – causing traffic snarls, panic and frantic news reports.
Guillermo Quirós, an oceanographer, tsunami expert and director of the Coastal Institute of the San Juan de la Cruz University in Heredia, north of San José, said the situation could have been better managed.
“Yes, the media played an important role in spreading the word,” Quirós said. The problem, he claims, was that the information provided “wasn’t technically accurate.”
Quirós said the people of the central Pacific port town of Puntarenas – who were evacuated amidst traffic and confusion along the narrow peninsula’s one-way roads – had been safe despite the warnings, thanks to their protected location inside the Gulf of Nicoya.
Other coastal regions, such as Quepos to the south and Flamingo to the north, did face a real threat of a tsunami – but certainly nothing requiring the full-scale evacuation that resulted.
A set of three waves, he said, was forecast to hit Costa Rica around 9:30 p.m., just after low tide along most of the country’s coastline.
Because tides average around 2.7 meters, the predicted wave of 30 centimeters to 2 meters was unlikely to do any serious damage.
“We had a cushion of three meters. At high tide, you might have gotten wet, but you certainly weren’t going to get washed away,” said Quirós, who has studied such oceanic phenomena for more than 25 years.
Better safe than sorry, though, said CNE’s Gallardo, who told the press that when human lives are at stake it’s better not to take chances.
One thing Gallardo and Quirós agree on is the need to continue educating the public on what to do if a tsunami threatens.
Thanks to $17,000 in Japanese aid, dedicated to tsunami education, some 50 teachers received training in Puntarenas, in conjunction with the CNE and Central American Seismological Center (CASC).
Gallardo said some of those affected by Wednesday’s tsunami alert had been through this training, and it seems their knowledge was put to good use.
Ironically, the group will be training another 50 teachers today in an event scheduled before this week’s tsunami scare.
The idea is for the teachers to then pass the training on to students. The Japanese money is also being used to print educational pamphlets and posters to distribute to schools.
SeismologicalCenter Director Mario Fernández said the pilot program is in Puntarenas, but he aspires to bring preparedness education to the entire country.
“The whole world is at risk of a tsunami – tourists may live in a safe place but they go to the beach. Even we in San José go to the beach,” he said.
Also necessary is a map indicating tsunami flood zones in Costa Rica, an essential tool for more accurately predicting damage, Quirós said.
Other experts agree. Still fresh in their minds is a wave towering more than 30 feet caused by a 7.0 earthquake that bore down on the Nicaraguan coast in 1992, scouring entire villages and claiming up to 170 lives, injuring and displacing thousands more.
Fernández said he is working on getting funds from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) to design and publish such a map.
“These things need funding and followup,” said Fernández, adding that after Wednesday’s false alarm, there may be more political will to invest in an emergency system.“
You need a crisis for people to invest in these kind of things.”
The regional SeismologicalCenter was established with a grant from the government of Norway (TT, Sep. 3, 1999) and had plans to design a warning system for all of Central America, which would include education of coastal communities and expanding the information-sharing and warning network between Mexico and Panama, leaving the door open for the network to be expanded as far south as Chile.
Fernández said the project ran out of money in 2000, coming up about $500,000 and five years short of completion.
“What happened? Well, here we depend on foreign aid, and when the funding stops, the whole system stops because we don’t have the minimum resources to solve these problems,” he told The Tico Times.
Despite the confusion, Quirós said Wednesday’s events served as an important dry run for such a scenario, pointing out the country’s – and the region’s – glaring weaknesses.
“We must understand that U.S. warning systems are set up for U.S. interests. They don’t give us all the information we need,” he said, adding that Costa Rica must set up similar monitoring systems if it hopes to be protected in the future.
He said the possibility of a potentially life-threatening tsunami is very real in Costa Rica.
“There is much scientific evidence that tells us that a tsunami could strike here and cause significant damage,” Quirós said.
Tico Times reporter Blake Schmidt contributed to this report.