There, but for the grace of God | Inquirer Opinion
There’s The Rub

There, but for the grace of God

THAT WAS a pretty scary scenario Pacific Strategies and Assessments laid out for us if a 7.2 earthquake were to hit Metro Manila. Its study was made after an earthquake of that magnitude hit Haiti last year. The effects, PSA warned, would be catastrophic and resemble that of Port-au-Prince.

These are some of the horrific things that could happen to us:  117,000 homes would collapse; 1.2 million people would be homeless; one-fourth of public facilities, hospitals, schools, police stations, etc. would be knocked out; damage to water purification plants would be extensive, cutting off 4,000 water supply points; 30 kilometers of electric cables would be damaged, blacking out the entire metropolis; 100 kilometers of telecommunication cables would be cut, outing service for weeks, possibly months; airports and major ports will close for days, or even weeks; roads and bridges would be impassable.


In short, a cataclysm of Biblical wrath-of-God-proportions. How many will die immediately after the earthquake and afterwards, when hunger and disease set in, is anybody’s guess. Hundreds of thousands is not an exaggeration.

That is only if a 7.2 earthquake were to hit Metro Manila. The one that hit Tokyo was 9. The mind boggles at the thought of what might happen if the magnitude were to climb up to those levels.


We do have an idea of what could happen to us in that event. The ferocious 1968 earthquake did not hit the capital directly as it did Casiguran, Quezon Province, but it was enough to rock Manila to its roots and bring down the Ruby Towers, killing 260 people. The tsunami it spawned went outward all the way to Japan. That earthquake was “only” 7.3. At the time it hit Manila, which was more than 40 years ago, there weren’t too many tall buildings in the metropolis. That is no longer so today. More importantly, when it hit Manila, there were only a couple of million people living in it. The metropolis now hosts a daytime population of 14 million.

Is a Japan-type earthquake likely to visit us?

Well, with the way earthquakes have been occurring of late, or since Aceh, striking with a regularity and ferocity not seen in the past, that is no longer a matter of idle speculation. The Philippines is in the Pacific rim that is home to earthquakes. To imagine that God has a special place in his heart for us and will spare us Nature’s fury is to flirt with suicide. I’m not knocking prayer, the devout can always seek recourse to it, but God has been better known to help those who help themselves.

How can we help ourselves in the face of what insurers felicitously call “an act of God?”

A couple of things.

One of course is to take disaster preparedness deathly seriously. “Ondoy” showed us how badly unprepared the capital itself is for a disaster of relatively minor proportions. It took a whole day before government could get to those who had taken to their roofs to escape the rising waters. That was just a flood, that wasn’t a tsunami that left a whole coast underwater.

We do call for disaster preparedness and mount some kind of program immediately after disasters. We did so after “Ondoy”, we did so after the super storms that hit various parts of the country, such as the one that flattened Albay some years ago. And we did so after the earthquake that hit Baguio City in 1990 (that one registered 7.7), and buried people in piles of rubble in Nevada Hotel and elsewhere. I recall that schools and offices went through some drills on what to do when an earthquake strikes after that.


But we do not do it on a sustained basis. We do not do it day in and day out till it becomes reflex action the way the Japanese do. Of course there are limits to what you can do when a cataclysm of epic proportions strikes, but preparedness can spell the difference between casualties of 1,000 and 10,000, or mind-bogglingly between 10,000 and 100,000.

Far more importantly, what we can do is to take corruption deathly seriously. Yes, corruption.

“Ondoy” didn’t just expose the extent of our unpreparedness, it exposed the evils of corruption. Corruption is not something abstract, it is not something that happens to others, it is something that happens to us. Corruption kills. Corruption kills us. It is the rubber boats that should have been there but were not there because the money for them had gone to rewarding the generals for their help in stealing the vote. It is the relief goods that should have stocked the shelters automatically but were not there because the money had gone to bribing the congressmen and bishops to help fend off a fake president’s impeachment. Corruption is the sense of duty and depth of concern government should have shown in responding to the crisis but was not there because government was attuned only to NBN and not to SOS.

Earthquakes are an “act of God,” whatever that says about divinity, but its effects are an act of man. It boggles the mind to imagine what a Szechuan-type earthquake would do to us when a sudden downpour is not just enough to clog our streets but to tear away huge portions of the roads. It chills to the bone to imagine what a Haitian-type earthquake would do to us when houses could collapse and huge cracks well up on the roads in Cherry Hills even without an earthquake. It puts awe in the heart to imagine what a Japan-type earthquake would do to us when rice can disappear and hunger could stalk the land even without plague and pillage to deplete the granaries.

We do not protest the disastrous conditions in which we live even without a disaster, we won’t stand a chance when an awe-inspiring one comes along. We might as well stand naked before the elements and say:

There, but for the grace of God, go I.

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