Negligence compounds disaster
“Yung fourth floor nagbagsak, sobrang bilis, biglaan, biglang bagsak nung lumindol, segundo lang (The fourth floor suddenly collapsed in seconds when the earthquake struck).”
That was the terrifying testimony of Romylyn Bhey, a survivor of the destruction of the four-story Chuzon Supermarket in Porac, Pampanga, after a 6.1-magnitude earthquake struck Luzon island last Monday.
The collapse trapped dozens of customers and employees under the rubble. At least five people died.
Reports revealed that the Chuzon Supermarket was originally designed only for two floors; an investigation is underway to check whether the foundation was strong enough for the two extra floors added, and whether the addition went through vetting and approval at city hall.
If the Chuzon Supermarket tragedy turns out to be a case of lax or nonexistent enforcement of building rules, then it would highlight once again the kind of criminally poor governance afflicting the country when it comes to enforcing the most elementary safety requirements in infrastructure.
The negligence of building authorities in allowing the haphazard construction of buildings with poor planning and weak foundations, making them high-risk structures, directly impacts lives, none more keenly so than when unexpected disasters such as earthquakes strike.
Videos shared on social media after last Monday’s quake showed varying structural damage in buildings old and new, from heritage churches to high-rises, prompting the government to order extensive building inspections. (Metro Manila has about 254 high-rise buildings, according to The Skyscraper Center, a database of tall buildings across the world.)
But why only now? The Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) already warned in 2004 of a catastrophic scenario in case a 7.2-magnitude earthquake hits Metro Manila, with estimated casualties of more than 30,000, and about 40 percent of residential buildings and 35 percent of all public facilities damaged.
Japanese experts would know—earthquake preparedness is part of their way of life. Japanese structures are built to withstand powerful earthquakes,and citizens are regularly drilled on disaster preparedness. Nevertheless, thousands still died in the 9.1-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that hit east Japan in March 2011.
The Jica simulation of a major Metro Manila temblor was made 15 years ago, and so many developments have happened since then: The metro’s population has become denser, accompanied by a frenzy in construction even along the major geologic fault lines in the region that Filipino scientists have long warned about.
More such pell-mell construction is underway, including 19 planned reclamation projects in Manila Bay. Experts have warned that such reclamation could worsen flooding and make the area prone to liquefaction, a phenomenon that occurs when loosely consolidated sediment soil deposits lose their strength
and stability and behave like liquid material.
Liquefaction could be triggered by an intensity-7 earthquake and cause buildings to tilt, warned Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) director Renato Solidum Jr.
Solidum also emphasized the need to update the National Building Code, which was enacted in 1972 under Presidential Decree No. 1096. Several bills are pending in Congress, including House Bill No. 7804, that seek to repeal the old NBC and tighten regulations for safer houses, buildings and other structures.
The Chuzon Supermarket collapse and the loss of lives and property due to the latest quakes should prompt the government to act with greater dispatch not only in updating laws but, more importantly, in enforcing them.
“[This] … should serve as a wake-up call to all building contractors to make sure that structures are safe for the public,” said Bataan Rep. Geraldine Roman, chair of the House committee on disaster management. She also called on the Senate to pass its counterpart bill creating the Department of Disaster Resilience, meant to strengthen the capacity of national agencies and local governments in responding to disasters.
Since Monday’s 5:11 p.m. temblor, 78 other quakes have been recorded by Phivolcs across the country. Predicting earthquakes with any reliability is impossible, but mitigating their aftereffects through diligent, sustained, science-based preparation is not just possible, but imperative. As Solidum said: “What is important for us to understand is that earthquakes do not kill people, [the] collapse of houses and buildings does.”
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