Earthquake Scare Questions Philippine Disaster Preparedness

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“What would you do if an earthquake of 9.0 magnitude hit the Philippines?” This was the question I posed to random strangers on my way home. After the devastating tremor that hit the province of Sendai, north east of the coast of Japan on the 11th of March 2011, common sense dictates that any rational person, after being exposed to an earthquake and other similar calamity drills, would know what to do. It’s only logical to come up with a survival toolkit, i.e., an evacuation plan, to stave off the effects of such an apocalyptic scenario.

Sheryl Flores, 32, eldest in a brood of four said she would be hysterical. “I think I was traumatized by earthquakes. I was only 12 years old when I first experienced a very strong earthquake,” Sheryl said as she recalled the July 16, 1990 7.8 magnitude tremor that hit the island of Luzon, which claimed thousands of lives. “I skipped my class that day and since then I associate my skipping classes triggering another big quake. And since then, I never skip class.”

Sheryl belongs to a household of eight which is a typical family size in the densely populated poor areas of Manila. In the absence of preparatory measures, it’s not hard to imagine that households like the Flores family would have a hard time coping when disaster strikes urban centers.

In the Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study (MMEIRS) of 2004, a study that was funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the scenario was gloomy. The study evaluated seismic hazards, damages and vulnerability of Metro Manila. It considered 18 earthquake scenarios and their potential effects to buildings, lifeline and population. Of the 18 scenarios, three of these models were chosen for detailed damage analysis. Of the three, model 08 was considered to be the most crucial. It projected a 7.2 magnitude earthquake which is equivalent to Tsar Bomba, the largest thermonuclear weapon ever tested, will be generated by the West Valley Fault line, which include seven Metro Manila cities, namely, Quezon City, Marikina City, Pasig City, Makati City, Pateros, Taguig and Muntinlupa. The expected tremor will be equivalent to 50 megatons of TNT exploding. Severe damage is expected with 175,000 residential buildings heavily damaged and 345,000 partly damaged. The number of deaths is expected to be 33, 500 while 114,000 will be injured.

“It is important to note that the MMEIRS report was completed 7 years ago,” said Jose Mari Daclan, Knowledge Management Specialist of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative (EMI), a not-for-profit organization established in the Philippines in 2004. EMI seeks to advance urban risk reduction policy, knowledge, and practice in megacities and fast-growing metropolises around the world.

“Various parts of Metro Manila have undergone rapid urban development since then, adding a significant number of structures to the totals indicated in the report. Should an earthquake occur at this time, there is a possibility that actual casualties and damages will be higher than the estimates in the study,” Daclan added.

Daclan also explains that strict implementation of building, construction and zoning codes help in terms of structural preparedness for buildings. However, physical interventions such as re-development and investments in hazard-resistant infrastructures are just two of the many aspects of disaster risk reduction. Metro Manila is a case in point. As much as it is important to ensure the safety and integrity of infrastructures, trainings and capacity-building of stakeholders – local government units and their constituents – translate to knowledge of what it is that must be done assuming the projected magnitude hits the Philippines.

The issue of preparedness brought me back to my question, “What are we to do if a big quake hits us?” I couldn’t get Sheryl and her family off my mind. She has a niece, Jasmin, 5, and a nephew, James, 3. If disaster strikes, Sheryl and her kin would just be part of the national government’s statistics of casualties. With all her surroundings crumbling to dust, where can she run? Where can she turn to?

I went to the community’s Barangay Hall hoping it has a plan how to help the neighborhood in case an earthquake of this magnitude takes place. In the Philippines, the Barangay is the smallest political unit headed by a Barangay chairman/woman with Kagawads (council members) who implement village guidelines. It’s charged with securing peace and order in the village by settling neighbour disputes as well as other functions such as providing information and basic social services. Perhaps they know what to do.

“We talked about this (earthquake) a few days after we saw on TV what happened in Japan,” said Cecilia Herrera, 53, a Barangay Kagawad. “We were alerted by the city government through the Barangay Bureau to talk about this. But since then we haven’t followed it up with the Barangay chairman.”

“The sad thing is that when disasters happen, that’s the only time the government acts. It’s very reactionary,” said Maribel Daclizon, a mother of five who is also a Barangay Kagawad. “Although I don’t dismiss what prayers can do, but that’s what we can only do now since we haven’t heard from the city government.”

In a two-way radio interview, Joey Ejercito, Barangay chairman, said that there are already efforts from the local government unit to coordinate plans to prepare for earthquakes. The city government plans to provide instructions and information drives to Barangay officials who are then expected to relay to their neighbors what they will learn.

“It’s impractical to come up with evacuation plans at the Barangay level,” Ejercito said. “Instead, what the local government intends to do is to design a zone-based plan that is more efficient. We will coordinate with the city government and it will then coordinate with various national government agencies such as the Department of National Defence and the Department of Social Welfare and Development. We will also coordinate and expect some trainings and drills from the Philippine National Red Cross.”

But when asked about the stride this plan is taking, Ejercito said, “For me, this is taking a bit too long. For all we know, an earthquake might hit us anytime and none of us are prepared. Don’t get me wrong. We can’t predict earthquakes, but I just hope we’re doing some preparations faster than we talk.”

Sheryl and her family can run to the nearest Barangay Hall. Unfortunately, the Barangay and its officials will be running for their lives, too.