Science and engineering solutions for big earthquakes

PERCEPTIONS - Ariel Nepomuceno - The Philippine Star

Anticipation of possible strong earthquakes must be done more seriously, and scientifically. The projected casualties and damage must scare everyone to the point of paranoia. While we must not panic, we should also level up every aspect of earthquake preparedness.

I received an unusual amount of emails and text messages because of my last column where I discussed whether we are ready for the big earthquake, landslides and tsunamis. I will address their questions and clarifications here so that our other readers who are asking the same concerns would be enlightened. Most of their reactions were bordering on being unaware of the possibility of such tremors and seeking guidance on how they can avoid being one of the projected casualties in case such eventuality happens.

The big one is not exclusively confined in the National Capital Region (NCR). Meaning, big earthquakes could happen in almost all parts or major cities of the country. The most openly discussed “big one” refers to the movement of the West Valley Fault System which runs from Bulacan, traversing Quezon City, Pasig, Muntinlupa, down to Laguna. If this fault system moves, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake could unleash a destructive intensity that would take thousands of lives, injure many people and destroy properties.

According to studies conducted, more than 50,000 people can perish. At least 160,000 will be seriously injured which would surely challenge the health system, meaning clinics and hospitals that are themselves possibly in disarray cannot handle the emergency situation. On top of these, around three to five million people will be displaced and would need to be taken care of in evacuation sites. I would not expound on the details of this catastrophic scenario.

Now to have a clearer understanding of our situation, we have to know that there are 18 fault systems and trenches in our country – any of which can cause a major, even stronger, earthquake. Remember, we are in the Pacific Ring of Fire. Daily, we experience more than 20 earthquakes, though most of them are not felt because they are weak movements of less than magnitude three. The Manila Trench, for example, which is on the left side of our archipelago, can cause an 8.3 magnitude earthquake. This is stronger than the dreaded 7.2 magnitude tremor due to the West Valley Fault System. And worse, this can even cause a tsunami that can hit the communities of Western Luzon. Similarly, we have the Philippine Trench in the east which can also trigger an earthquake of similar magnitude.

The “Drop, Cover and Hold” reaction is not enough to save everyone. Yes, even if this standard drill can save many, this cannot save all. The country must embrace science as our first line of defense to mitigate the destructive impact of big earthquakes.

House owners and would be home owners must consult with available hazard maps which would show what areas are prone to earthquakes, liquefactions, landslides and tsunamis. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) have provided “Hazard Hunter” and “Fault Finder” which can handily forewarn us in committing basic errors in deciding where to build houses, offices or commercial establishments. You’ll be unpleasantly surprised, there are at least two million structures that sit on top or near the West Valley Fault System. Use the said apps, you might be saving your life and those of your loved ones in doing so.

Stricter issuances of building, construction and occupancy permits must be relentless. The standards set by the National Building Code (RA 6451) and the National Structural Code of the Philippines 2015 must be followed. No excuses, shortcuts and violations must happen or be tolerated. Lives are at stake. We are aware that those who are entrusted with this task are prone to be remiss in their responsibility. Issues of corruption hound this sector.

The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) must also consistently ensure the quality of the structural steel such as rebar, beams and cement that we use for construction of buildings, houses and infrastructure.

Architects, engineers, property developers and agents must provide the safe and resilient choice. I am sure that there’s a big market segment that would appreciate the premium of a safer house to live in or an office to work in. Long time ago, an “environment friendly” or “green” building was purely aspirational until it became the usual feature of many new buildings and houses. Hopefully, we are able to strengthen the awareness and preference of the private sector for an “earthquake safe” establishment.

The necessary technologies are already available and being widely used by many countries, particularly Japan. Seismic isolators and rollers allow buildings and houses to simply “play with the movements” caused by earthquakes. Old buildings can also be retrofitted to withstand strong earthquakes. Critical infrastructure, hospitals, schools and other buildings that are crucial in continuing the operations of government must be re-engineered soon.

We are all praying hard that our country will be spared from major calamities such as strong earthquakes. But we must also employ actual preparations and steps that will protect our communities from disasters.

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Email: [email protected]

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