On Earth Day itself, Mother Nature showed who’s boss when, at 5:11 p.m. on Monday, a 6.1-magnitude earthquake struck Castillejos, Zambales.
So far, it has left 16 dead, 81 injured and 14 missing, while causing considerable damage to homes and property in Pampanga and other parts of Central Luzon.
As of this writing, local and national government offices are still tending to the dead and the injured in Pampanga and assessing the damage to infrastructure.
Metro Manila, with a driving distance of about 180 kilometers from the epicenter of Monday’s quake, was spared from the worst of the temblor’s wrath.
But the capital region was jolted nonetheless by the alarming shaking that caused tall buildings to visibly sway, reminding the public that a potentially much stronger quake — the “Big One” — can strike the metro and its environs.
A 2004 Earthquake Impact Reduction Study for Metropolitan Manila by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) pointed out that many active faults have been identified around and within Metro Manila.
Of these, the Valley Fault System, which runs north to south along the west and east edges of the Marikina Valley, “poses the greatest threat.”
The West Valley Fault has moved four times and generated strong earthquakes over the last 1,400 years, or once every 350 years. Considering that no event along the West Valley Fault is known after the 17th century, “it means that the active phases of the Valley Faults is approaching.”
Of the many natural disasters such as typhoons, volcanic eruptions, droughts and tsunamis that visit the Philippines, earthquakes “pose the greatest threat to life, property and the economy,” said Jica.
And the consequences of the Big One in Metro Manila, which accounts for roughly 35 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, will be catastrophic.
The study’s worst-case scenario indicated that a 7.2-magnitude earthquake caused by the movement of the West Valley Fault will cause 40 percent of all residential buildings, and 35 percent of public facilities such as schools and hospitals, to collapse or be heavily damaged.
A number of bridges will be destroyed; power, water and telecommunications lines cut; and as many as 34,000 left dead, with another 114,000 injured. An additional 18,000 deaths are projected because of fires that will likely spread after the devastating quake.
“The human loss, together with properties and economy losses of Metropolitan Manila will be a national crisis,” the Jica study warned.
This study was done in 2004, or 15 years ago; given the urban population and property development that have grown since then, the estimated risk to life and property could only be much bigger now.
But while it is impossible to predict an earthquake or prevent the natural disaster from happening, the damage can be minimized.
Since building collapse will likely cause the greatest number of deaths and injuries, the reinforcement and strengthening of buildings should be a priority measure to reduce the loss of life, according to Jica.
This means constant updating of the national building code and strict adherence to the provisions, to ensure that structures are able to withstand strong earthquakes, as quake-prone Japan has shown.
Question: Is this being done?
The regular inspection of roads, bridges, railways, airports and harbors must also be undertaken, as these are vital in ensuring rapid and adequate emergency response. Loss of life will be inevitable following a catastrophic quake, but the actual number of casualties will ultimately depend on the level of preparedness and effectiveness of risk management and emergency response systems.
To be fair, lead government agencies such as the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology have been doing their part through timely warnings, geohazard mapping to guide local government units and scheduled earthquake drills.
But the public has been noticeably lukewarm in taking part in these civic exercises. Only the jolt of an actual earthquake reminds people of the need to be well-informed and prepared for possible disaster, such as what happened on Tuesday when, in the wake of the temblor, social media was flooded with reminders about what to do in the case of a devastating quake.
Individual Filipinos can contribute to mitigating the risks by taking the earthquake drills seriously and following basic instructions — preparing a go-bag, for instance, with basic supplies such as food and water, medicine, flashlights and extra batteries, a pocket knife and a whistle (for signaling).
Mother Nature has reiterated the message, and on Earth Day, no less: Be prepared. Take heed.