FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 25, 2019 - 12:00am

People are understandably on edge. We face what seems to be a swarm of quakes.

Last Monday, Pampanga was hit by a strong quake felt in the Metro Manila area. On Tuesday, an even stronger quake hit Samar, damaging infrastructure. Yesterday, quakes hit Davao and Batangas.

The experts assure us the quakes are unrelated. Different fault lines and different conditions characterize each incident. 

Sitting on the western Pacific’s volatile “ring of fire”, we actually experience quakes everyday. Most of them, however, are too weak to be palpable. But it is not often that a cluster of strong, potentially deadly quakes hits us.

We have always lived in this condition of nearly constant shifting of the earth. Much of the anxiety is due to the overlay of superstition and myth attached to the occurrence of quakes.

In 1990, a major quake hit Central Luzon, causing tremendous damage. The year following, Mount Pinatubo erupted with great fury. The quake is not the cause of the eruption, although some would rather believe it is.

These days, some people would rather believe the quakes are related incidents and because of that the Big One could be imminent. That is self-inflicted fear. It is not supported by the science we have.

Unfortunately, we do not have the means to predict earthquakes. We can only analyze each event after the fact. Neither can we draw patterns from the quakes that have occurred. Each is a unique phenomenon.

Even the idea of a Big One – a major quake hitting the densely populated Mega Manila region – is at best mere proposition. We know the fault line running down the spine of the metropolitan area is an active one. We do not really know if this will produce a destructive major quake or a series of minor ones.

But it is best to be prepared. A contingency plan has been worked and reworked through the years. It will not prevent the loss of tens of thousands of lives should the worst happen. It will, however, help the survivors organize themselves after tragedy strikes.

Expectation of the Big One happening encourages strict implementation of building codes and constant earthquake drills. It provides reason to crack down on substandard building materials and the preparation of designated evacuation areas.

There are a million things we have to do to help make the metropolitan area more resistant to the potential damage caused by a major quake. We should not tire doing the many things that need to be done: conserving open areas, bringing high tension wires underground, reinforcing vulnerable structures, creating redundancies in our vital infrastructure, and many others.

Fear is not a productive response to the possibility of destructive quakes. Preparation is the best option.

Public works

There is little we can do about the old churches built centuries ago. Several of them were seriously damaged the last few days.

If we wish to retrofit heritage structures, that will have to be done at private expense. Those that civil engineers deem too vulnerable, will have to be condemned.

Government’s concern is exclusively the public works that were built and are maintained at taxpayer expense. In the metropolitan area, several old bridges are in urgent need of retrofitting or complete rebuilding. The recent earthquake scare should prod us to begin work on them.

Some of the dams supplying water to the densely populated Mega Manila area are aging as well. Some need retrofitting. Others possibly rebuilding. We need additional dams to ensure redundancy. We should have started building them yesterday.

We are still doing the accounting for the extent of damage to public works in Central Luzon and Eastern Visayas in the wake of the strong quakes. They will likely run into the hundreds of millions. Stretches of public highways were ripped by the tremors. A few small bridges might need rebuilding.

The poster boy for the damage is the existing Clark airport terminal, where the roof over the main hallway collapsed. The airport authority is preparing to spend for repairing the damage. But if it is found to have been built using substandard materials, the contractor may be sued.

Flights needed to be cancelled because of the damage sustained by the terminal. That alone involves large costs.

Fortunately, the spanking new terminal building capable of serving 8 million passengers per year will be ready for use in a few months. The previous administration sat on this project – with many funny anecdotes about how the former president thought about it. The current administration pursued the project with urgency.

The new Clark terminal building and the second runway to be built soon will make this an important hub for tourism, services and manufacturing serving all of East Asia. This will be the brightest point of our economic resurgence.

While we are doing the accounting on damaged public works, we might rethink the manner we contract out projects. In most advanced economies, companies contracted to build public works need to issue a warranty for the final result. If the road is found defective or the structure found substandard, the contractor is immediately held to account.

The warranty arrangement forces the contractor to deliver sturdier roads and structures. That will be under pain of spending later to cover the costs of repair or even replacement.

By requiring warranty cover from contractors, we should expect less project anomalies. The public gains from better infrastructure. Government is spared the unplanned costs of doing repairs after a calamity.

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