Caribbean plans tsunami warning system by 2010

PANAMA CITY Thu Mar 13, 2008 11:48pm GMT

Khao Lak beach is seen in Phang Nga province, nearly 110 km (68 miles) north of Phuket, December 25, 2007. The Indian Ocean tsunami on December 26, 2004 killed almost 6,000 people and left nearly 3,000 missing in Thailand. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

Khao Lak beach is seen in Phang Nga province, nearly 110 km (68 miles) north of Phuket, December 25, 2007. The Indian Ocean tsunami on December 26, 2004 killed almost 6,000 people and left nearly 3,000 missing in Thailand.

Credit: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

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PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Caribbean states will set up a joint tsunami warning center before the end of the decade, governments agreed at a meeting in Panama on Thursday.

Supporters want the center to relay information from national geological institutes across the region, providing an early warning system that could help prevent deaths and infrastructure damage in the event of a tsunami.

Peter Koltermann, executive secretary of the United Nations Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, told a meeting of around 30 Caribbean states that the likelihood of a tsunami hitting the region at some point was "probable."

He said a regional warning center could help prevent disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed around 230,000 people.

Koltermann had said during a session on Wednesday that "the situation in the Indian Ocean was similar to the Caribbean. Nobody believed it would happen, but it happened."

He said Panama's interoceanic canal could be vulnerable to a sea surge from an underwater earthquake, and any shutdown would hit global trade. "If this canal does not work for one week, four weeks, or six weeks because of a tsunami, it is a huge danger and loss for the economy."

Participating countries included Jamaica, Barbados and Central American nations.

Although most tsunamis occur in the Pacific Ocean, experts estimate there have been around 105 tsunamis in the Caribbean and surrounding areas in the last 500 years, including one in Panama in 1882, causing more than 4,500 deaths.

It was not clear where the warning center would be located. Barbados, Puerto Rico and Venezuela were named as possible hosts by sources familiar with the discussions.

The center's $250,000 annual budget is expected to be met by national governments, France and the United States -- who sent representatives to this week's meeting -- and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

(Editing by Catherine Bremer and Philip Barbara)

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