Monday’s strong earthquake cut a wide swathe of destruction across Central and Western Visayas, leaving in its wake an increasing number of casualties as well as aftershocks that continue to bedevil rescue efforts. Coming as it did after last December’s Tropical Storm “Sendong,” which sent torrential rains flooding Mindanao and parts of the Visayas, the earthquake, whose highest intensity was between 6.9 and 7.2 on the Richter scale, should impress more deeply upon Filipinos how nature can be so destructive in its capriciousness, as well as how things can unhinge, or that the world may be falling apart.
It does not help that relief and rescue efforts in the devastated islands and provinces appear lost and uncoordinated. President Aquino spent his birthday visiting the Visayas and inspecting the damage and commiserating with the victims. But the sight of him directing the grossly undermanned and ill-equipped rescue operations did not bolster public confidence in the capacity of the civil defense establishment to cope with the disaster, as it had not during Sendong and Typhoon “Pedring.”
To the many old-timers who experienced or know about the 1990 earthquake, there’s a feeling of déjà vu: they are transported back to the time when President Corazon Aquino visited the devastation in Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija, and finding the rescue efforts listless and aimless, she openly asked almost to herself, “Who’s in charge here?”
Part of the difficulty of the Visayas earthquake is that it rocked the foundations of mostly informal settlements. Except for highly urbanized Cebu City, the territories that felt most the wrath of the earthquake were medium-size cities and extremely remote towns. So even if only a relatively few buildings were damaged, the quake unleashed landslides that buried villages and their inhabitants. Civil defense may not fully establish the final list of casualties, many of whom are feared to have been gobbled up by the earth.
And because the quake was largely tectonic in origin, it destroyed bridges and roads that now have doomed whole towns and villages and barred rescue teams from coming to their aid.
Not that the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council has the wherewithal to attempt a credible rescue. It looked pathetic, for example, that Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo had to direct the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) to mobilize all its fire trucks in Negros Oriental to bring potable water and come to the rescue of towns hardest hit by the quake—when in the same announcement, it was revealed that neighboring Negros Occidental, which was also hit by the quake, had to mobilize as well its fire trucks, with Bacolod City, the most urbanized city on Negros island, having only two fire trucks!
This reminds us of the 2008 fire that razed the centuries-old Catholic Church of Oslob, Cebu. The heritage church made of corral stone could have been saved had the fire department, which was just 50 meters away, responded effectively. Unfortunately, the Oslob fire marshal said they could not respond since their two fire trucks had conked out! What about the fire trucks of the nearest town, Boljoon? The Boljoon fire department failed to send fire trucks because these were also defective! As if to add insult to injury, the poor, nay, non-existent, response of the BFP took place on Fire Prevention Month!
So could the Negros fire trucks come to the aid of the earthquake victims? We hope so. Instances of disaster-unpreparedness by civil defense agencies themselves have fostered pessimism, if not cynicism, at efforts to rescue the victims of the Feb. 6 temblor. But such occasions should also reinforce public demand on government civil defense to shape up if only because things are bound to get worse. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology has said that the earthquake may have revealed a new fault line that perhaps may run across Central and Western Visayas.
Although the hypothesis has to be checked, it’s a logical conjecture that should worry everyone. A new fault line means a new recipe for disaster, as well as a new challenge for the government. The issue is clear: the country’s disaster-preparedness is a mockery. If there’s any state of calamity that must be declared, it’s our calamitous civil defense.
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