Bohol earthquake: Clear and present danger

(The Philippine Star) - October 20, 2013 - 12:00am

The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Bohol and other areas in Central Visayas is now recorded as one of the deadliest in our recent history, with the death toll at over 170 and rising. Hundreds of residences – including centuries-old houses of worship — were reduced to rubble, with the earthquake’s force likened to 32 atomic bombs (about 640,000 tons of TNT) according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

Donations have been pouring in, but the hundreds of thousands displaced have yet to make sense of the devastation that jolted them. Three months ago, Senator Loren Legarda launched “Ligtas,” a 16-minute instructional video on disaster preparedness for typhoons, floods, earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions and even tsunamis.

“Ligtas” — which Loren herself produced and narrated — is the latest in the series of documentaries and handbooks aimed at intensifying awareness on the dangers of environmental degradation and climate change, and how these affect the economy and ultimately, people’s lives. Loren has been repeatedly warning for many years now regarding disaster preparedness and risk reduction, and while her calls have not been totally ignored, no doubt a lot more still needs to be done to minimize, if not prevent, the fatal impact of natural disasters.

We can still remember Typhoon Pablo (international codename Bopha) that whipped Compostela Valley particularly Barangay Andap in December 2012. The barangay captain evacuated residents to the barangay hall – not knowing this would result in a bigger tragedy because the area was washed away by the flood, with a landslide eventually occurring. It’s likely the local official did not understand the geo-hazard maps distributed to LGUs, with many parts of Compostela Valley marked as flashflood and landslide prone. Loren cites data from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters saying that the Philippines has lost over P378 billion in damages caused by natural disasters from 1900 to 2013. Typhoon Pablo alone already cost us an estimated P68 billion in terms of economic damages.

There is absolutely no question that disaster-prone countries like the Philippines need to seriously implement environmental laws and institute long-term programs that would require buildings and structures to be climate and disaster resilient. More importantly, local officials and the public must be equipped with knowledge to avert major disasters especially in highly populated areas like Metro Manila.

According to the 2004 Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study (MMEIRS) conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake could result in massive devastation in the entire metropolis, with the death toll estimated at 50,000 and some 170,000 buildings collapsing like a house of cards. Metro Manila would be quartered like an apple, with the west portion isolated due to fires triggered by the earthquake. Roads from east to west would be ripped apart, with electricity and water pipes rendered useless.  This is almost the same scenario projected by Phivolcs head Renato Solidum, saying the West Valley Fault or Marikina Valley Fault (from the Sierra Madre running through Bulacan, Rizal, Quezon City, Pasig, Taguig, Muntinlupa, Laguna and Cavite) is “ripe for another major movement.” 

Unfortunately, many cities in Metro Manila have not been serious in implementing the National Building Code, merely paying lip service to land use and zoning regulations. As early as 2004, a paper presented by Japanese experts during the 13th World Conference on Earthquake Engineering in Canada discussed land use management — then described as a newly-emerging disaster reduction method” — as a significant countermeasure to reduce earthquake disaster, with Marikina being a case study. The paper noted that land use management should be seriously considered especially in cities with problems like high population density, high-rise buildings and vulnerable residences in earthquake hazard-prone areas.

So far, only Makati has come up with a 10-year Comprehensive Land Use Plan and Zoning Ordinance — twin measures that compel property owners to plan and build structures that would be resilient to hazards (flooding, landslide, liquefaction, etc.) that a particular area is susceptible to.

Considering the disasters that have struck this country one after the other, it won’t be surprising if 2013 would be regarded as an “annus horribilis” by global disaster agencies – and there’s a big likelihood that more could happen with the Philippines being a typhoon magnet, its location in the Pacific Ring of Fire making it susceptible to tectonic shifts that could cause strong earthquakes. Obviously, this is the reason – in fact the important reason – why the President should be allowed to keep a big contingency fund which can be utilized anytime it is needed to aid disaster victims. Denying the president the opportunity to speedily help will only add to the already miserable situation of disaster victims.

Clearly, climate change has changed the world from the way we used to know it, and it is everyone’s responsibility to be prepared for any disaster — although there is no guarantee that preparedness will save us because tragedies and disasters can come like the proverbial thief in the night. But as my algebra teacher used to tell us when one could not figure out the answer and thus may experience failing the subject — “You better pray.”

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It was very heartwarming to see the numerous friends, Ateneo classmates, old neighbors, fellow RH bill advocates, former Estrada Cabinet colleagues and his long time personal friend — former president Joseph Estrada – pay their last respects to my late brother, former Health Secretary Dr. Alberto “Quasi” Romualdez. Dr. Quasi was loved by so many people whose lives he had somehow touched — but to us his siblings — he was our beloved “Kuya” and family doctor. We will all surely miss him.

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