Preparing for earthquakes should go beyond first aid preparation. Most of the time schools, companies and government offices equip employees, workers, and students the basic knowledge of stop, drop, cover, hold, and then evacuate to open spaces, as protocols in the event of an earthquake. As an extra preparation, like in our offices at Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture, all of our employees are equipped with emergency kits that have a whistle, flashlight, bottle of water, compass, first aid kit, and multi-function portable tools. Identified members of the company are trained to do first aid, rappelling, and coordination for emergencies. But at the end of the day, these are things that we hope will not be necessary because preparation goes beyond first-aid reactionary measures.
In the Building Code and in the Structural Code (written in the 1970s), the liability of an architect and an engineer is only 25 years, and buildings are required to withstand at least an intensity 7 to 8 earthquake. In essence, the building code suggests that the life span and accountability of the building and other structures are only 25 years.
But a question hangs over our heads: after 25 years who will be made accountable if proven that the design and the materials used for the structure was sub-standard? Even if it is in the interest of a client to reduce costs, are developers, contractors, and designers allowed to lower down specifications? The local government is mandated, through the city engineering office, to check and audit structures if certain areas are fit for occupancy; so, in the event of a building collapse, what is the accountability of government officials who signed the occupancy permits?
The earthquake in Surigao is an unfortunate one, but nature should not be used as an excuse for complacency. For the past hundred years, earthquakes have always been a consistent event. There are even departments created to study fault lines to aid zoning and development in certain areas. For the Philippines, as well as Japan and other countries that are in the Pacific Ring of Fire, earthquakes have been part of history. But if we look at Japan, casualty and collapse during earthquakes of high intensities yield relatively low casualties.
When an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, Anna Coren of CNN interviewed me on the possible impact of an earthquake with a similar magnitude should it happen in Metro Manila. I cited a study done by the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 2004 on “Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction,” also known as the MMEIRS study. It assessed and somehow quantified the impact and damage the earthquake will cause. With the West Valley fault ripe for movement, as the PHIVOLCS says, it will be important to look back to the MMEIRS report for guidance. It should also be updated using today’s data to see the extent of the possible consequences.
The first 72 hours
According to the MMEIRS study, around 170,000 residential houses will be heavily damaged or collapsed (13 percent of total buildings), 340,000 will be moderately damaged (26 percent of total buildings) and 10,000 alongside the Manila Bay will be affected by liquefaction in the first hour of impact by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake.
Eleven percent of mid-rise buildings (10 to 30 stories) and 2 percent of high-rise buildings (30 to 60 stories) will be severely damaged or collapsed. Twenty-seven percent of mid-rise and 12 percent of high-rise buildings will be moderately damaged.
Eight to 10 percent of hospitals, schools, fire stations, police stations and government offices will be heavily damaged or collapsed. Twenty to 25 percent will be moderately damaged. Death tolls in the first hour could reach around 34,000 people and another 20,000 could become casualties in the succeeding hours because of widespread fires and successive tremors that will occur.
In the event of a “Big One,” rescue activities will be limited. As it is, it takes two hours to travel five kilometers on an average day in Metro Manila but with buildings and electrical posts toppled down, thousands of homes on fire, no water supply and debris, among others, it would take longer for rescuers to reach devastated areas. This is also assuming that our government forces and volunteers are safe and pieces of equipment are intact and operational. According to international assessment, help will come after 72 hours but because of Metro Manila’s urban sprawl and poor urban design, I think we can expect that it will take more time.
Immediate action and long-term preparedness
Palafox Associates and Palafox Architecture Group have sent 145 recommendations on disaster preparedness to the Office of the President—from Presidents Arroyo, Aquino, and Duterte. We recommended that we should immediately implement a strict structural audit of buildings that are earthquake- and fire-hazard. Structures weaken over time because of numerous vibrations caused by smaller intensity movements. Houses and buildings that are old as well as houses and buildings that have sub-standard designs should also be checked.
The government should most especially retrofit and repair our major bridges, government buildings, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. They also need to dedicate more open spaces for evacuation sites and these sites should have a quick response team that can set up a clinic, clean water station, food quarters, place of worship and mobile communication, among others.
There are about 44 signatories for government permits before a developer can build. This could be an obstacle course for corruption. Bureaucracy and red tape in securing building permits do not only pain the developer but are also hazardous to the end-users. Quality is sacrificed to offset the cost paid for corruption. Ultimately, corruption kills. It will take visionary leadership and a strong political will from the government to ensure public safety through good planning, good design, and good governance.