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Editorial

Life-and-death priority

/ 05:07 AM December 19, 2019

Two months after a series of quakes hit parts of Mindanao in October and left some 23 people dead, more than 500 injured and some 185,000 homeless, a 6.9 temblor again shook the region, specifically Davao del Sur, on Sunday.

It was the fifth quake above magnitude 6 to jolt Mindanao between Oct. 16 and Dec. 15. This time around, the death toll stands at nine as of Wednesday, with several more reported missing and feared trapped under buildings that have collapsed. At least 111 others were injured, while several thousands have once more been rendered homeless and in dire need of food, water, shelter and medical assistance.

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While the government has assured that it has mobilized disaster and relief agencies 24/7 to attend to quake survivors, the arduous work is only beginning to offer relief and succor to those who languish in makeshift tents and camp out in vacant lots exposed to the elements, a stark but better choice than going back to their now fractured homes.

Private companies and organizations, who have more resources, can certainly lend a hand with organized relief drives that should include the services of trauma specialists and play therapists to help children get over this nightmarish episode.

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And technical support is especially crucial when one looks at the pattern of destruction left by the series of temblors that have visited Mindanao in recent months. The dead and the missing in last weekend’s quake that struck Padada, Davao del Sur, were mostly pulled out of collapsed buildings — the three-story Southern Trade supermarket, the Canlas commercial building, the municipal hall of Magsaysay, as well as countless homes and structures whose walls fell on hapless individuals, including a six-year-old girl and several flower vendors.

Coupled with the collapse of Eva Hotel and the relatively new Ecoland 4000 condominium in Davao in the October quake, the latest temblor underscores once more the need to review, update and strictly enforce the National Building Code to ensure that structures are built to conform to minimum standards of safety and would withstand the impact of natural calamities, notably earthquakes.

This is particularly crucial in Mindanao, where several faults run through the island, making it seismically active. Under the Cotabato region run the M’lang Fault, Makilala-Malungon Fault, North Columbio Fault and South Columbio Fault. Scientists say the western extension of the Mindanao Fault and the Cotabato Trench also make the area prone to earthquakes.

With at least 700 aftershocks reported as of Tuesday, what’s to prevent those repeated tremors from further undermining already weakened buildings and pulling them apart?

In many regions outside the capital and big cities, the lack of expertise, knowledge about the latest technology and appropriate materials often result in less than sturdy structures that buckle under the force of nature. Conducting an audit of such structures is imperative, especially public hospitals and government buildings where people often gather to transact their daily business.

At the minimum, old and poorly designed structures would have to be retrofitted with disaster-resilient upgrades and certified safe by government engineers before they are allowed back for use. And a thorough geomapping of geohazard areas prone to landslides is needed, so the communities can be warned or relocated out of danger zones.

Updating the National Building Code passed in 1977 may be a gargantuan task, but, given how disaster-prone the country is, it’s a task of utmost priority.

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The technology and science from 42 years ago are obviously outdated; the standards of the current code no longer apply to the realities and the potential disasters we face today, said Dr. Benito Pacheco, project leader of the UP National Engineering Center team.

Indeed, now is the time to take advantage of new, more superior and stronger building materials available, the technological advances that could test tensile strength and more accurately measure density and ground quality, as well as increased scientific findings on the country’s geological weaknesses and fault lines.

To be fair, five different bills seeking to update the National Building Code have been filed in Congress, including the Philippine Building Act of 2018 (House Bill No. 7804).

But what’s stopping lawmakers from tackling these life-and-death measures on the floor promptly — or at least as promptly and eagerly as they take to the idea of fiddling with the Constitution?

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TAGS: earthquake preparedness, editorial, Mindanao earthquakes, National Building Code, structural safety
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