Yesterday morning a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook St. John as well as the other Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. No damage or injuries were reported, but we all got a nice jolt.
Earthquakes are common here as we lie on the edge of the Caribbean and Atlantic plates with the Atlantic Plate slowly sliding beneath the Caribbean one, a situation that builds up energy resulting from time to time in earthquakes and volcanoes.
Just about every day we have about a half a dozen or more small tremors, which no one feels, but are reported by the US Geological Survey. Historically, however, we have one or two major earthquakes every century. Ninety years ago there was a 7.3 magnitude quake that killed 118 people, but the last real big one was in 1867. These big quakes often are followed by Tsunamis as was the case in 1867.
The 1867 quake caused massive damage, injuries and loss of life as did the tsunami that followed in its wake. It was reported that the water in Charlotte Amalie Harbor was sucked out to sea leaving boats at anchor in the harbor lying helplessly in the mud while fish flopped around in the broad daylight. The resulting wave sent vessels and fish far ashore and devastated the St. Thomas waterfront.
St. Thomas had experienced some hard times that year. Prior to the quake there was a major hurricane, a cholera epidemic and a massive fire that swept rapidly through the town fueled by the predominantly wooden structures that existed in those times. To prevent a future occurrence, officials mandated that the reconstructed houses be built in stone instead of wood, which turned out to be the worst material in the event of an earthquake as many people were killed or injured by falling stones. Furthermore with the many aftershocks following the quake for weeks after the event, made it unwise for people to return to their house even if the damage was insignificant.
It’s been almost a century and a half since this powerful seismic event and people here really don’t think too much about earthquakes.
What they think about is hurricanes, and by and large Virgin Islanders are fairly well prepared for the next big blow. But it wasn’t always this way.
Before Hurricane Hugo in 1989, there hadn’t been a major hurricane since the early part of the 20th century. When I first arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1969, I remember reading in a tourist information booklet that the Virgin Islands lie so far north of the hurricane belt that they are rarely threatened.” People didn’t build their houses with hurricane clips or didn’t screw in their galvanized rooftops. Yachts stayed at anchor the year round. Tourist seson was twelve months a year.
For example, For some twenty years, Foxy held his famous Wooden Boat Race on Labor Day, the height of hurricane season. Nobody said, “hey, you’re crazy to have a sailing event in the Virgin Islands in September.
But after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 the hurricane psychology changed radically. You can’t even get windstorm insurance on a wooden house no matter how well it’s built, tourists pretty much avoid the Virgin Islands from August until November. Yachtsmen put their boats on land or sail to safe harbors in the late summer and Foxy’s Wooden Boat Race is now held in May.