Killer earthquakes: How to be saved

PERCEPTIONS - Ariel Nepomuceno - The Philippine Star

Almost miraculously, a strong earthquake that hit Taiwan a few days ago has minimal number of casualties. Official reports claim that at least nine people were killed, though hundreds were injured as an aftermath of the 7.4 magnitude tremor.

If, God forbids, an earthquake of similar strength would happen in the National Capital Region (NCR) and the adjacent provinces of Bulacan, Pampanga, Tarlac, Laguna, Cavite and Batangas, will we be lucky enough to also suffer only with minimal number of deaths and injuries? Sadly, the quick answer is NO. The overall impact will be catastrophic, which is similar to what happened in Turkey and Syria last year where more than 55,000 died after an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck the region.

According to the scientific studies conducted by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2014, more than 34,000 can immediately perish if the West Valley Fault System would move and cause a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. Some studies project a larger number of casualties at 54,000, with at least 160,000 seriously injured and at risk of being amongst the initial casualties if not properly attended to by the health emergency system.

Furthermore, it is expected that there would be dozens of sporadic fires razing establishments and thousands of collapsed structures would liter the streets with debris that would make rescue operations difficult. Communications will not be dependable.

There will be riots and unrests in the midst of desperate outcries for help. Food and water supply can be too scarce while lootings and social unrest will be worse than what was experienced after Typhoon Yolanda wreaked havoc in Tacloban City. I thought before that such transgressions would be unexpected amongst Filipinos. This typhoon broke that myth.

Solutions must be rolled out soon. Start focusing on the necessary steps to drastically lessen the number of possible casualties and give a systematic method of handling this potential nightmare.

First, let’s begin in our homes and workplaces. For those who would yet to own or build their houses, check available apps such as HazardHunterPh and Faultfinder to check if the location is near or even on top of an earthquake fault system, or in a danger zone due to volcanic eruptions. Knowledge on the distance of your house to natural hazards is important. If you have a choice, avoid such places.

But for those who already own houses, have them evaluated and retrofitted if necessary. Problem is, many Filipinos may not be able to afford the additional costs of making the structures of their homes stronger. For richer countries such as Taiwan, the government extended subsidies and loans for this purpose. Strong buildings and houses saved Taiwan last week.

Buildings must be retrofitted if needed. Seismic isolators and rollers are technologies that are already being widely used worldwide. In Japan, these are being installed even in their houses, especially for those that will be newly constructed. We studied these engineering innovations. Additional cost on civil works is only 10 percent though in some instances, costs could even decrease compared to traditional designs. Hopefully, property developers, engineers and architects would find commercial advantage in this. The market should see the premium attached to owning homes or working in offices that are earthquake resilient.

Second, the specific provisions of the National Building Code must be followed. Again, architectural and engineering designers must never resort to nor tolerate cutting corners. Lives are at stake here. The structures, including critical infrastructure such as bridges, hospitals, power plants and dams, must withstand earthquakes that can be 8.4 magnitude or stronger.

City and municipal officials who are in charge of granting building and construction permits must never be remiss in their sacred obligation to ensure the integrity of the structures that will be built. One corrupted signature could cost lives and properties.

No room for being sub-standard. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) must be at the forefront of ensuring that there will be no compromise on quality and strength of the steel, cement and other materials that are used for construction. Violators must be prosecuted and held accountable.

Lastly, communities that are in harm’s way must be relocated. Areas that are vulnerable to landslides, for example, must not be allowed to accommodate residential or working structures.

No build zones must be vacated or else casualties are inevitable once strong tremors happen. An inventory of the areas susceptible to natural tragedies must be updated so that urgent programs to relocate the affected communities can be done soonest.

Preparations must be comprehensive and not confined only to rescue protocols and earthquake drills. “Drop-cover-and-hold” response will not and cannot save everyone.

We also need engineering solutions, remove communities from dangerous areas and strict compliance with the safety requirements of the building code. These will not be easy and they require at least a decade to achieve.  Let’s hope that there will be no major earthquake before we fully embrace these measures and solutions.

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