Over the New Year festive season, there have been a number of events that have influenced the subject for this month’s feature.
These were: on New Year’s Eve (NYE), the heavy rain and resulting damage in the Azores; on New Year’s Day, the earthquake off the coast of the Algarve, which was felt by many people in the region; a record December temperature of 26.4°C recorded on NYE in Odemira; and, although not affecting Portugal, the tragic fires in Colorado, USA.
Incidentally, on New Year’s Day 42 years ago, Terceira Island, in the Azores Archipelago, was the scene of one of the biggest natural disasters in Portugal with a 7.2 earthquake destroying much of the city of Angra do Heroísmo. Terceira Island saw about 80% of its buildings destroyed, 71 dead (51 in Terceira and 20 in São Jorge) and more than 400 injured, leaving 15 people displaced.
There is, of course, no reason to suggest that January 1 is any more prone to natural disasters than any other day of the year, but what it does illustrate is the need to be prepared as much as we can for such disasters.
New Year’s Day earthquake
I was sitting in our lounge on New Year’s Day, about to get up, when the ground shook below my feet. This was at our house near Boliqueime. It was clear it was an earthquake. The movement stopped after just 3-4 seconds. If it had not, we would have taken cover – time did not permit.
On checking the IPMA website, there was no indication of an earthquake, but then, upon visiting the Volcano Discovery website, it became clear that a quake, initially reported at 4.1 magnitude (moderate in scale), had taken place, with an epicentre some 80kms south of Faro.
We gathered together as much information as possible from various official “seismic monitoring organisations” and posted this on the Safe Communities Portugal Facebook page some 12 minutes later. I believe we were the first in Portugal to report the news.
Over the following minutes, more information was added and amended as further details emerged. The magnitude was revised from 4.1 to 4.4 and the depth of the earthquake amended from 13kms to just 7kms – making it an extremely shallow earthquake.
The fact it was shallow was likely the reason it was felt by so many people. Fortunately, in this case, there were no injuries or damage to property. If it had been stronger, in this position and depth, it could have been a different matter.
Nevertheless, over 600 people, mainly in the Algarve, contacted Volcano Discovery online reporting that they had felt the earthquake. Around 200 comments were made on the Safe Communities Facebook post, which reached over 43,000 people and was shared over 200 times.
I would like to thank those for sharing so quickly as this is essential in getting vital public-safety messages across – although this time not life-threatening.
A learning point is that one cannot always rely on some of the media for reporting when events such as this take place on public holidays and, in the case of IPMA, the information was comparatively slow to emerge. Also, the IPMA reporting link “I felt an earthquake” did not appear to work for many and the Volcano Discovery appeared to be more effective.
This should serve as a wake-up call; we do in the Algarve live in a seismic risk area, so being prepared by knowing what to do should an earthquake occur is important.
More details can be found on our website www.safecommunitiesportugal.com
Next, turning to wildfires. When we see the extent of the destruction in Colorado from the massive wildfires during the winter season, in my view, there can only be one cause – climate change. The area had been in drought conditions for several months beforehand and the fires raged quickly, driven by winds up to 169kph.
Some 30,000 people in the towns of Louisville and Superior were displaced and, in half a day, nearly 1,000 homes were destroyed.
While previous fires in Colorado have been in rural areas, the latest affected more suburban parts of the state and became the most destructive wildfires in the state’s modern history. They only died down on the arrival of snow showers!
In Portugal in 2021, there were two major fires, one in Castro Marim and the other in Odemira, spreading slightly into Monchique. The fires were driven by high winds, in difficult conditions, where access was difficult.
The emergency services were well prepared with pre-positioning of vehicles and resources in high-risk areas and additional aircraft and helicopters available.
Also, the use of new technology relaying from the air to commanders on the ground the metrological conditions and predictions of how the fire would spread helped a great deal in decision-making.
These fires also showed, in some instances, the importance of land-cleaning and taking steps to reduce the amount of flammable vegetation around houses. This is an important element of being prepared, and those living in rural areas should now start planning on measures to take this year.
Knowing what steps to take if affected by a rural fire is also important. Firemen cannot be behind every tree, so we need to learn self-protection measures, namely what to do until help arrives. We were fortunate last year but, with signs of a hot year emerging, the fire-risk is potentially higher.
We were fortunate in 2021 and escaped more lightly than some countries in northern Europe and our neighbours in Spain who experienced the worst of the flash floods. Azores was less fortunate in the last few days.
There is little we can do against violent thunderstorms, heavy downpours, hail, etc, except to pay attention to the weather warnings, and ensure drains and gutters, for example, are regularly inspected and cleared – in other words, “preparedness”.
Have a happy and safe New Year!
By David Thomas
David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2011, he founded Safe Communities Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal.