Are we really prepared for the ‘Big One’? | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Are we really prepared for the ‘Big One’?

When I lived in Tokyo some years ago, friends in Manila expressed concern about radiation leaking from nuclear reactors into my sashimi. I often replied that Tokyo was a great place to live because people worldwide paid for radiation while I got it free. Earthquakes were so frequent it became part of everyday life. When I registered as a foreigner in the local ward office, I was provided a disaster kit that included: maps to evacuation areas, face masks, water purifying tablets, trash bags and dedicated ones for urine and feces.

When an earthquake struck, I didn’t duck under the table or panic since objects did not fall from shelves. During a real emergency, a friend suggested that instead of running down and out of the building, I should go up to the top floor so that in case of collapse, I would be on the upper level of rubble for easier extraction.


When the earth shook on Monday, I responded by taking a video of the swaying chandeliers to post on Instagram. The duration of the quake was two minutes, a blip in normal time that seemed like a dizzying eternity. I declined the waitress’ invitation to move away from the glass walls into the interior. When the maître d’ invited me to step out of the restaurant, I explained that creaking sounds were normal since the structure was designed to sway with a quake rather than resist it and crack.

A security officer came up and politely told me the building had been evacuated. Realizing he was only enforcing emergency protocol, I relented and walked to the hotel lobby. To stay in the air-conditioned area, I chatted with the NPR Manila bureau chief who was checking on a colleague at the front desk. Everyone else was stewing in the summer heat across the street.


I wish people will be as calm and orderly when the dreaded “Big One” strikes.

If you want to be frightened and prepared for the Big One, read the 2004 Japan International Cooperation Agency’s Earthquake Impact Reduction Study for Metropolitan Manila. It contains: data on earthquakes from 1608-2002; an intensity scale, from 1 (Scarcely Perceptible) to 10 (Completely Devastating), when all man-made structures are in ruins; a table that calculates the destruction to buildings, bridges, water supply, electric power and casualties; and a narrative earthquake scenario that describes each of the seven days after.

There will be no internet and no cell phone coverage; news will come from Jurassic battery-operated transistor radios; and communication, if at all, will be by landline. Food and water will be scarce, there will be no electricity, and with all the bridges down, the metropolis will be physically separated by the Pasig River. Fires will abound, hospitals will be filled beyond capacity, disease will spread. People on survival mode will be at their worst behavior. Lawlessness will ensue and survivors, at some point, will wish they had died in the first 10 minutes of the quake.

How much of the recommendations of this report have been acted on? For example, the most vulnerable areas near the earthquake fault were already identified, yet high-rise, high-density buildings have been built on them and sold to the clueless. Destruction and casualty estimates were made according to the intensity of the quake, and in the worst-case scenario, “170,000 residential houses will collapse due to the earthquake, 340,000 residential houses will be partly damaged, 34,000 persons will die, 114,000 persons will be injured. Fire will break out and burn approximately 1,710 hectares and totally, 18,000 additional persons will be killed by this secondary disaster. Moreover, infrastructures and lifelines will also be heavily damaged.”

Some 15 years ago, the estimate was that a devastating earthquake would destroy 47 percent of the homes in Metro Manila, leaving over 3 million people as homeless refugees. What are the updated figures for 2019? What steps have been taken to reduce damage and casualties since? I’m afraid to even ask.

The report said a lot will depend not just on the national response to disaster, but on community preparedness. Are we really prepared to cope with a devastating earthquake? Are we capable of restoring utilities, communication, transportation, food, water, law and order a week after? I’m afraid not.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, Big One, earthquakes, Looking Back
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