Next, the Big One?
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 24, 2019 - 12:00am

Office workers filed out into the sidewalk, with several groups wearing hard hats of the same color, after the Magnitude 6.1 earthquake struck Metro Manila and Central Luzon the other day.

That was in Makati’s business district. I was on Jupiter Street on my way to Manila’s Port Area and didn’t feel the quake in a moving vehicle. From the crowds milling around in front of almost every office building, however, I knew that a strong earthquake had struck.

The texts began coming in: a skyscraper in Makati’s Central Business District was undergoing structural tests. Elsewhere in Metro Manila, employees weren’t being allowed to go to the basement parking of one office building for their cars, so they were commuting to their homes.

Preparedness is uneven, however, and structural integrity is still iffy for many buildings. Consider the Emilio Aguinaldo College, now leaning against an adjacent building along UN Avenue in Ermita, Manila. Both buildings are in danger of serious damage, especially if there is another powerful earthquake.

A building in Manila’s Chinatown also swayed so much that water from the roof deck swimming pool spilled into the street.

The worst damage, however, was recorded in Porac, Pampanga, where the four-story Chuzon Supermarket crumpled like an accordion. As of last night, nine survivors had been rescued, five fatalities retrieved and about 90 workers were still unaccounted for. The building is only five years old, and Porac Mayor Carling dela Cruz said the structure met all requirements of the National Building Code.

Public Works Secretary Mark Villar talked to The Chiefs yesterday on Cignal TV’s One News, and said the cause of the collapse is still being determined. He has ordered a structural inspection of the three other branches of the supermarket in Pampanga.

The Department of Public Works and Highways is assessing the structural integrity of several bridges and roads in the affected areas.

Villar talked with us through a patch from Pampanga, about half an hour after a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck Eastern Samar.

He reassured the public that the public works infrastructure that have been temporarily closed for inspection would be reopened soon.

Unless the Big One strikes, as seismologists have been warning for years.

*      *      *

Humans have gone to the moon and sent probes to Mars, but earthquakes still can’t be predicted. At a certain magnitude, they are guaranteed to cause destruction, no matter how prepared the society may be.

Japan, as far as I know, has the most advanced level of preparedness for disasters – earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis. Still, nothing prepared it for the magnitude 9 earthquake that triggered an apocalyptic tsunami on March 11, 2011 in its northeastern Fukushima prefecture, which was followed by a nuclear reactor meltdown.

That kind of tsunami we see only in special effects movies. Will we ever see it in the Philippines? It must have been unimaginable even to the Japanese, or else they would have had contingency plans in place.

During my visits to Japan, I’ve seen street signs directing people to the nearest evacuation and meeting sites, medical centers, and stations where they can get supplies of drinking water and basic food items in case of an emergency.

Disaster preparedness is inculcated early among Japanese school children, who visit museums and earthquake simulators where they are shown what can be expected and what they can do to stay safe, whether at home, in the streets, in schools, offices, moving vehicles or public places.

Yesterday, Susan Mercado, deputy secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross, faced The Chiefs bringing with her the Japanese version of a “go bag,” which people can buy in Japan for emergencies.

Among the contents of the bag are a whistle, flashlight, masks for dust and smoke (Mercado added an anti-viral mask), a rope strong enough for going down a window, gloves to prevent rope burn, and a super light sheet of fire-retardant material that looks like silver foil, which can be worn to escape from a fire. There is also a bottle for water with a medicine container attached to it.

Department of Education Undersecretary Anne Sevilla told The Chiefs that some Philippine public schools provide students with “go bags” containing a whistle, a flashlight and some basic items such as bottles of water that students can keep under their desks or seats in case of an emergency. The packs, however, are provided by local government units, and not all LGUs do this.

Sevilla reassured me that since the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Luzon on July 16, 1990, the structural integrity of public schools has been boosted. 

*      *      *

Seismologists are warning that the Big One, with a minimum magnitude of 8.5, will emanate from the 100-kilometer West Valley Fault that cuts through six cities in Metro Manila and nearby provinces. The fault has moved at intervals of 400 to 500 years in the last 1,400 years. The last one was recorded in 1658, so seismologists believe the fault is ripe for another major movement.

Let’s review what we’ve been told in the past years: an earthquake impact reduction study for Metro Manila projects that even a magnitude 7.2 earthquake from the fault can kill 34,000 people within an hour, injure 114,000 others, damage 340,000 houses and cause 170,000 residential houses to collapse. Of the fatalities, 90 percent will die in collapsed structures while 20,000 will be trapped and die in fires in damaged buildings.

The nighttime scenario projects fires to kill 18,000 people and raze 1,710 hectares of land.

Ten percent of public buildings and at least seven bridges will also collapse. There will be 4,000 points of breakage along 4,615 kilometers of water distribution pipes; 30 kilometers of electric cables will be cut; 95 kilometers of telecommunication cables will be disconnected.

It’s a grim scenario. The two recent earthquakes should give urgency to the possibility that the scenario could become reality.

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