The earth moves
There is nothing we can do about earthquakes except to be prepared for them. We sit astride the Pacific Rim of Fire where there are active volcanoes and plates keep moving across the Earth’s mantle.
We cannot predict earthquakes, unfortunately. Therefore we cannot order evacuations like we do during storms. They happen suddenly and without warning. All we can do is to diminish vulnerability by ensuring the integrity of our structures and the readiness of communities to quickly respond to calamities.
When a 6.7-magnitude earthquake struck Surigao del Norte earlier this month, the destruction was enormous for a medium-intensity tremor. About 600 buildings were damaged. Landslides happened. Bridges collapsed. The continuous rain created the danger of liquefaction.
We are still delivering relief to Surigao. Villages were cut off. Power was disrupted. Clean potable water became scarce because of damage to the pipelines. Those who lost their homes will have to be kept in temporary shelters until reconstruction can begin. Students were displaced from damaged school buildings.
As we saw in Bohol a few years ago, much of the damage could have been averted had our building code been faithfully observed. There was evidence of substandard steel bars being used, especially in public infrastructure. One mall in Surigao was so badly built, the concrete posts resembled chalk.
Our local governments, responsible for issuing building permits, are notorious for weak enforcement. The fault might lie in poor capacity. Many towns and cities do not have sufficiently qualified engineers to properly enforce safety standards.
In the case of infrastructure built by the national government, there is really no excuse for the sloppy execution of some projects. National government agencies have sufficient numbers of engineers to oversee projects contracted out. Private contractors are notorious for cutting costs by cutting corners. They do this to eke out a better profit given all the additional costs of undertaking public projects. Others do it entirely out of greed, putting the lives of our countrymen in jeopardy.
The one that struck Surigao this month will not be the last to hit us. A fault line runs through the archipelago from Ilocos to Mindanao like a spine. On any point along this line, stresses could build up causing a quake to happen. Science has not been very helpful in telling us where the next might happen. We can only make wild guesses based on the historical record.
We know from the historical record that the Manila area is particularly vulnerable to strong quakes. The Manila Cathedral was brought down several times by quakes and required many years of rebuilding. The last memorable quake to hit the Manila area was during the late 1960s. That quake brought down the Ruby Towers condominium in Binondo, taking terrible casualties.
Our scientists are warning us that another major quake is due, possibly occurring at the extremely active Marikina Fault. They are calling the next possible quake “The Big One” because the indications are it will be stronger than the Ruby Towers event.
For years, the actual track of the Marikina Fault was closely guarded information. It is possible land developers did not want the map made public to protect property prices. Now, in this age of transparency, the path of the fault line is readily available information. Vulnerable structures close to it have been identified. One particularly vulnerable school building has been abandoned, in fact.
Our building code requires structures to be able to withstand a magnitude-9 quake. That is the theoretical benchmark. In reality, a quake similar to the one that hit Surigao this month or Bohol a few years ago will cause extensive damage to the metropolitan area. It is bound to be a mass casualty event. Some of the bridges across the Pasig River could be cut, dividing the city in half.
Our disaster authorities have identified Clark Air Base as the center of rescue and relief operations in the event The Big One hits Manila. A comprehensive postquake plan is being prepared even as we hope this never happens.