Are we ready for the big earthquakes, landslides and tsunamis?

PERCEPTIONS - Ariel Nepomuceno - The Philippine Star

Our country is prone to natural calamities. Typhoons, at least 20 on the average, hit the country annually. Earthquakes, on the other hand, shake the different parts of our archipelago daily at an average of around 20, though we don’t usually feel them because their strength is not as strong at less than magnitude four. After all, we are in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Floods and landslides usually result from prolonged torrential rains and victimize the vulnerable communities, especially in the agricultural or mountainous areas. Billions worth of damage in our agriculture and infrastructure perennially occur. But compared to floods, the devastations that can be caused by earthquakes can be deadlier and more destructive.

Is the country truly prepared for the so called “Big One?” This is in reference to the strong earthquake that can be caused by the movement of the West Valley Fault System which runs from Bulacan, Metro Manila to Laguna. Comprehensive studies, funded by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) with our Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), predicted a possible magnitude 7.2 tremor. In all standards, this is considered a real strong earthquake.

Furthermore, the said comprehensive studies projected a staggering number of casualties. Hear me, more than 50,000 would possibly die. At least 160,000 will be seriously injured and would need immediate medical attention. Around 3-5 million individuals will be dislocated and would need temporary shelters. All these happen amidst sporadic fires and debris from collapsed structures. There’s no sugar-coating this horrifying prognosis. We cannot alter the doomsday scenario described by all available scientific studies.

What remains only is our decision to accept their possibility and fully prepare for this eventuality which, in our most fervent hope and prayers, will not really happen. We must honestly evaluate how far we have gone and what we have done to mitigate the destructive impact of this dreaded catastrophe.

The problem is larger, the preparations needed are greater. The bad news is, the West Valley Fault System is not alone. It’s not the only possible cause of a huge earthquake. The Philippines has seven major trenches and 30 active fault systems that can all ignite a major deadly ground movement. The Manila Trench west of Luzon, for example, can cause a much stronger tremor with an 8.3 magnitude strength. A tsunami is even expected to be generated and hit the western coastal provinces of Luzon. The Philippine Trench, east of Luzon, can start an earthquake with the same energy.

The other trenches and fault systems are spread all over the country such as the Cotabato-Daguma Trench which moved recently and caused the 6.7 magnitude earthquake in Sarangani area. The others are Central Cordillera Trench, Northern Sierra Madre Trench, Sothern Sierra Madre Trench, Negros Trench and Central Mindanao Trench.

Engineering and regulatory solutions are urgent. Houses and buildings must be fully compliant with the required threshold mandated by the National Structural Code of the Philippines 2015 (NSCP) which was developed by the Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines. Vertical structures must be able to withstand at least an 8.4 magnitude earthquake. The objective of having the correct engineering design goes beyond aesthetics. Saving lives is the ultimate goal of creating resilient structures.

The usual “duck, cover and hold” drills will not be sufficient to spare lives because if the buildings collapse, they would bury the people underneath. Hence, it is imperative that our local government units (LGUs) become stricter in managing the approvals and inspections of structures that will be built in their jurisdictions.

The Department of Trade and Industry must be vigilant and relentless in checking and ensuring the quality of steel and concrete materials being used for construction. Allegedly, the past decade has seen the proliferation of sub-standard imported steel products in our market.

Short-cuts in the process must be stopped and not tolerated because of the deadly consequences that infractions entail. Let’s protect our people.

Install early warning systems and create collective muscle memory. The country must invest in the necessary technology that will forewarn the threatened communities on a raging tsunami in case an earthquake causes the waves to surge to their shores. As of today, there’s no effective alarm system that will systematically herd our people to safer grounds for refuge.

The Department of Science and Technology, headed by my friend Secretary Rene Solidum, has an available app called “PlanSmart Ready to Rebuild.” This can be used to guide the LGUs in safely choosing where to locate endangered communities by avoiding the multiple hazards that are clearly identified in the maps.

I personally believe that we can claim that we are prepared for the “Big Ones” only when the projected casualties will be almost zero. The assumption that there will be more than 50,000 casualties is grossly unacceptable.

Engineering solutions, coupled by stricter implementation of the safety provisions of the NSCP, will be our first line of defense. Drills and the corresponding muscle memory of our citizens will be the complementing skills that can save lives.

The entire preparation process will take time, huge financial resources and discipline. But we better accept that we need a comprehensive solution, and we must start now. Each life is important.

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