Thursday, March 17, 2011


The heartbreaking images of lives and property devastated by the cruel one-two punch of a Magnitude 9 earthquake and 30-foot tsunami has spread fear across both sides of the Pacific.

It prompted President Aquino to order a review of Philippine earthquake contingency plans.

The calamity in Japan – the worst crisis since World War II according to Prime Minister Naoto Kan – provides a stark lesson that a worst-case scenario may not be the worst at all.

And as the world is flooded with pictures of nature’s fearsome wrath, there are questions in the Philippines – as much as any country – what they could do when faced with such unprecedented destruction.

The Philippines is easily one of the most disaster-prone countries, straddling the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and a route for typhoons.

The tragedy in Japan has fueled a closer look at the West Valley Fault that runs through much of eastern Metro Manila.

“Recent studies show that the West Valley Fault has moved 4 times and generated strong earthquakes within the last 1400 years,” one study revealed, “The approximate return period of these earthquakes is less than 500 years and no event along the West Valley Fault is known after the 17th century.”

“It’s ready for a major movement. We can’t say when this will happen,” said deputy chief seismologist Bartolome Baustista.

Japan helped fund an Earthquake Impact Reduction study for Metro Manila in 2002-2004.

The study built 18 “earthquake scenarios” that measured the possible effect of an Intensity 7 earthquake triggered by the West Valley Fault on the capital region’s 10 million residents.

The worst-case scenario – the so-called Model 8 – predicted such an earthquake happening during the early evening rush hour will immediately kill 34,000 people and injure over 100,000 as the intense shaking topples 40% of structures in Metro Manila.

An additional 18,000 could be killed in fires triggered by leaking LPG tanks and short-circuits.

Nearly half a million houses will be destroyed or damaged.

Electricity will be cut off except for those with generators. The MRT and LRT will survive the tremor but no trains are running. Survivors will flock to basketball courts and other open spaces, too afraid to seek shelter indoors. Confusion will be aggravated by the collapse of cellphone as well as regular phone services.

It would probably take a week before any large-scale response can be mounted – aided in large part by foreign governments and international aid agencies.

The study, completed nearly 7 years ago, was aimed at developing a “road map” to mitigate the destruction from an earthquake in the most heavily populated area of the Philippines.

It identified six goals – “developing a national system resistant to earthquake impact, improving Metro Manila’s urban structures, effective risk management system, increasing community resilience, formulating reconstruction systems and promoting research for reducing the impact of earthquakes”.

The study proposed 105 “priority action plans” – 40 of them deemed urgent. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of them appear to have gone nowhere.

The recommendations include reorganizing city and barangay disaster response councils, constructing a northern shore uploading facility on Laguna de Bay, inculcating a “disaster mitigation culture” for young students, strictly enforcing building codes, and even encouraging homeowners to tie down LPG tanks so they don’t come loose during an earthquake.

Experts say the newer structures were built with greater protection against earthquakes but the vast majority of structures in Metro Manila are old and often neglected by city inspectors.

A military exercise conducted three weeks before Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana, Sept. 2009) dumped neck-high deep floodwaters on Metro Manila, pointed to serious deficiencies in training and logistics that could hamper their ability to respond to disasters in the capital.

Contingency plans, the military admitted, were “outdated and not responsive”.

Because the different major military headquarters are located in Metro Manila, they could become early casualties of a powerful earthquake – and with them, the national government’s ability to communicate with the rest of the archipelago.

It’s imperative the government infrastructure survive the initial impact of an earthquake, and yet there is scant evidence that will happen with certainty.

Here, there is emphasis on ensuring critical personnel, especially doctors and paramedics, are able to make it to hospitals and trauma centers during a crisis.

Another lesson to be drawn from recent crises, from Libya to Japan – Filipinos will, more than anything else, demand action from President Aquino and his government, from rescuing them in some isolated desert oil refinery to free plane tickets to escape the threat of radioactive contamination.

That could be a persuasive political motivation for the government to plug existing deficiencies in its capability to respond to a worst-case disaster. The events in Japan shows, you can never prepare enough -- and falling short could be the greater disaster of all.

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