On Aug. 2 it will be 47 years since the earthquake in Casiguran, Quezon, that would not be remembered if not for the impact it made 200 kilometers away, in Manila. Known today as the “Ruby Tower Earthquake,” it reminds us of the collapse of a building in Binondo that killed at least 268 people and injured 261 others.
Disasters in Manila always get momentary attention; our problem is following through. There is nothing we can do about the past but we can prepare for the future, and I wonder what amendments to the Building Code were made after the Ruby Tower Earthquake and if it has been recently updated to minimize the loss of life and property anticipated in “The Big One.”
I was at the office of the president of De La Salle University when the 1990 earthquake struck. I knew it was a strong one because Br. Andrew Gonzalez, FSC, all 200 pounds of him on a swivel chair, was moved to a side of his desk by the tremor. Since we would not fit under his office desk, I stood up and was looking at the door when he said: “Stay where you are! We will be safe. I am a Christian brother.” Being a man of little faith, I did not find the last statement very reassuring. But I sat back down and he continued the conversation that had been rudely interrupted. Later when I stepped out of his office, I found the entire building empty.
Everyone had evacuated to the football field.
In retrospect, I admire Brother Andrew, since deceased, for being a gallant captain who would sink with his ship (but he did not have to take me down with him). Manila was fine, but the newspapers the next day carried photos of the ruins of Hyatt Terraces hotel in Baguio.
Earthquakes do not kill people, collapsing buildings do. Urbanized parts of the Philippines have come a long way from the basic bahay kubo of the Filipino nursery rhyme to towers of glass and steel that scrape the sky. When people lived in nipa houses the big problem was fire, so the roofing was changed to tiles that did not need to be replaced as often as thatch and provided more insulation from the heat. But the problem was that during the disastrous earthquakes of the 19th century, some people were killed by falling roof tiles. The solution?
Galvanized-iron sheets for roofing. GI sheets are fire-resistant and won’t slide off and kill the neighbors during an earthquake, but during a strong typhoon these can still fly off and injure someone.
How people respond to disaster can be an engaging way to know and understand history.
There are many references to earthquakes in the 55-volume compilation of Spanish documents known to historians as “Blair and Robertson.” They make timely reading today because they describe tremors that go horizontally, vertically, or even in circles, triggering motion sickness in people and animals. Some 19th-century travel
accounts of the Philippines come with engravings made from photographs showing ruined buildings in Manila and elsewhere after an earthquake.
One of the notable earthquake casualties in history is Pedro Pelaez, who, together with Mariano Gomez, worked for the secularization of the Philippine clergy in the 19th century. His name would have joined those of Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora who were killed by garrote in Bagumbayan in February 1872, but he escaped execution because he was killed when the Manila Cathedral collapsed on him during the 1863 earthquake that occurred in Nueva Ecija, 60 km north of Intramuros.
People in Metro Manila have every reason to be apprehensive because there is no question that we are ripe for a big earthquake in our lifetime—unless, of course, the experts are wrong. The earthquake drills in Metro Manila and other parts of the country are not only timely but also essential because while we cannot do anything about a quake, we can minimize destruction and plan for reconstruction afterwards. If you have the time you must download the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) study on Earthquake Impact Reduction for Metro Manila that was done way back in 2004. It took a decade for us to even start earthquake drills.
In 2004 when the Metro Manila population was only 10 million, way less than today, the projection was that with a 7.2-intensity earthquake, 35,500 people would die and 113,600 would be injured in the collapse of buildings—and there were not enough hospitals and medical facilities to cope. The post-earthquake problems included fire, food and water shortage, and restricted mobility (because Manila is predicted to be divided into four quadrants). In terms of building damage, the 2004 report took into account 1,325,896 residential buildings. Of that number, 168,300 would be heavily damaged and 339,800 partly damaged.
Jica also did scenarios for 6.5- and 7.9-intensity earthquakes. You can read the figures in the report that, despite its calm language, is quite terrifying. Phivolcs has its own projections that are just as scary. For a 7.2-intensity earthquake, the projected casualties are 37,000; very serious injuries, 16,000; serious injuries, 132,000; and slight injuries, 456,000. It even projected total floor area figures for collapsed, complete, extensive, moderate and slight damage.
We can’t do anything about an earthquake, but we can prepare for it.
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