It is a fact that the Philippines is located along a typhoon belt and the so-called Ring of Fire—a vast Pacific Ocean region where many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.
As such, devastating as the back-to-back 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Bohol and super typhoon Haiyan (local name Yolanda) in Tacloban had been in October and November 2013, they were proof of the country’s tremendous vulnerability to natural disasters.
These horrifying natural calamities—including the 7.8-magnitude quake that killed more than 9,000 people in Nepal on April 25, 2015, and the May 30 earthquake in Japan—have effectively paved the way to an escalated awareness and preparedness campaign in the Philippines. On July 30, in fact, government and private institutions, as well as the general public, actively participated in the Metro Manila Shake Drill. (See related story on this spread).
But long before these intensified efforts, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), now headed by Director Renato Umali Solidum Jr., has been disseminating information on how to be prepared at the onset of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. To be precise, disaster preparedness has always been their business.
The violent Hibok-Hibok Volcano eruption of 1951, which resulted in huge casualties and damages, led to the creation of the Commission on Volcanology (Comvol) on June 20, 1952. By way of Republic Act No. 766, Comvol was primarily tasked “to safeguard life and property against volcanic eruptions and its dangers.”
The agency operated under the executive board of the National Research Council, and later under the National Science Development Board (NSDB).
On March 17, 1982, Executive Order 784 reorganized the NSDB and its agencies into the National Science and Technology Authority (NSTA). Comvol was then restructured and renamed Philippine Institute of Volcanology (Phivolc).
On September 17, 1984, seismology or the science that deals with earthquakes came under the jurisdiction of Philvolc from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa). Phivolc was effectively renamed Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs).
That same year, a new Geology graduate from the University of the Philippines by the name of Dr. Renato Solidum, Jr. started what would become his lifelong career in the agency with the item “Science Research Specialist (SRS)1.”
As a young boy, Solidum told The Sunday Times Magazine he dreamt of becoming a civil engineer.
“I come from Romblon. I grew up there until high school and I didn’t even know anything about geology,” revealed the man who today is a recognized expert in Geochemistry, Marine Geology, Volcano and Earthquake Geology, Geologic Hazards Assessment and Awareness, and Earth Science Education.
“In the province, the popular professions to pursue are doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, and engineers. So I wanted to be a civil engineer because that’s what I knew.
“I passed the entrance exam for UP but I didn’t pass the quota for engineering so I enrolled in a non-quota course,” continued the high school valedictorian.
“When I was about to enroll at the College of Arts and Letters, the non-quota block sections were already filled up, so I checked the brochure and saw geology. And when I checked out the line for enrollment to the course, it was very short! So I went for geology and even though I originally planned to transfer to engineering eventually, I found myself liking the course.”
During Solidum’s time in college, very few young people were attracted to the science of geology. He noted that nowadays, more students are interested in the course because mining has been revitalized.
“Metals are important in our modern world. Many geologists go to mining and oil companies and power development; some also work as geologists that look at the environment.”
For Solidum, however, destiny led him where he is today. “I believe God places you in a situation where He designed for you to be.”
After graduating from UP, Solidum—the eldest son of teachers Renato and Norma—had also planned to work in mining or oil companies in order to help his parents in sending his other four siblings to school. But his former teacher Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan, who was also then director of Philvolcs, invited him to work for the government agency.
“I was getting my grades from him so he convinced me to join Phivolcs,” joked Solidum. “Dr. Punongbayan only said only three things: Please work. Help your country. It’s not a high-paying job but you can earn a higher degree.”
The obedient student never gave an outright yes to his mentor, and instead went back to
Romblon for a two-month vacation in Romblon. There, he mulled over his options and finally decided to apply for the position.
“When I went to Human Resources [at Philvolcs], they immediately recognized me and said that Dr. Punongbayan was waiting for me. My salary was like P1,800 a month. My boss taught me so much though—he was our mentor and our father. He taught us how to communicate to people the important things they should know about. That’s why now, I’m trained to give the facts, what’s the real score, and tell them what to do.”
After showing much promise in his first position in Phivolcs as Science Research Specialist 1, Solidum was promoted to officer-in-charge of the Volcano Monitoring and Eruption Prediction Division in March 1992. He held the position until February 1994.
In 1999, he was appointed as Chief of the Geology and Geophysics Research and Development Division.
Just before assuming this new position, the NSTA was structurally and functionally transformed into the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and Phivolcs was mandated to perform the following functions as specified in Executive Order No. 128:
“Phivolcs is mandated to predict the occurrence of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and their geotectonic phenomena; determine how eruptions and earthquakes shall occur and also areas likely to be affected; generates sufficient data for forecasting volcanic eruptions and earthquakes; mitigate hazards of volcanic activities through appropriate detection, forecast and warning systems; and formulate appropriate disaster-preparedness and mitigation plans.”
It was also during these years when Solidum completed his Master’s Degree in Geological Science from the University of Illinois, as well as his PhD in Earth Science at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California in San Diego.
“Studying abroad was not that easy because I had to leave my family. Although I was a scholar, I also had to work as an assistant teacher or assistant researcher to augment my educational expenses,” recalled Solidum who admitted that though it was tempting to settle in the United States with his qualifications, his commitment to return to the Philippines and keep his promise to serve the country remained his utmost priority.
The explosive eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 became the game changer in Solidum’s career in Phivolcs.
“I was in the US then studying but I came home when Mt. Pinatubo erupted, which also changed the way people saw Phivolcs. Many people became aware that we exist for the first time,” he recalled.
According to Solidum, there are 300 volcanoes in the country but only 23 are active, in the sense that they have erupted through history. More accurately, a volcano can only be considered active if its eruption occurred within the last 10,000 years.
“Pinatubo did not have any explosions on record. The carbon date on one sample, however, indicated that there was an eruption 500 years before. This information was released in 1987 by another group and we then classified it as active. By 1991, it finally erupted.”
Solidum remembered his foreign partner in monitoring Mt. Pinatubo before the historic eruption to have said, “Nice meeting you,” because they both knew the real score.
“Since we were both geologists, we could imagine what would really happen but God thinks otherwise. He needs us to educate our kababayans to be prepared and always rely on facts and science,” he said.
Solidum became the director of Phivolcs in 2003. He replaced Punongbayan who died in a plane crash.
Despite having such a challenging job, the head of Phivolcs manages to rise above the demands of his post and excel in the highly-specialized field of seismic science, and serve
as a vanguard of disaster risk reduction and management in the Philippines.
Because of his efficiency and dedication, Solidum received three prestigious awards in 2010 alone including the Presidential Award or Lingkod Bayan Award by the Civil Service Commission, Outstanding Professional of the Year in the Field of Geology by the
Philippine Regulations Commission, and the Presidential Citation for Public Service.
Solidum is also involved in several researches and co-authored 15 full publications.
He received the 2010 Presidential Lingkod Bayan for raising the bar of disaster risk reduction and initiating a nationwide mapping program that generated new information on tsunami-prone areas. These are useful for local governments in risk-sensitive development planning and disaster preparedness.
For all of his achievements, Solidum credits his family for inspiring him to be the best he can in such a huge responsibility to nation. They too, he acknowledges, have sacrificed a lot so he can carry out his destiny.
“As a scientist, I don’t only deal with people here, I also have to fulfill my role as a partner of international organizations so I go to different places in the Philippines and different parts of the world to discuss and share what we have done in the country and vice-versa.”
Blessed with three children, Solidum is grateful to his wife Gladys, an accountant, for her unwavering support.
He is also very proud of his children Miguel who graduated Magna Cum Laude in UP for Business Administration course; Darynne who is taking up Psychology; and youngest Maurene who is a junior in high school, not just for their achievements but also for understanding the demands of his job.
To show how much he appreciates them, the Phivolcs chief still makes an effort to help out around the house, including waking up at 4 a.m. to help prepare breakfast.
“I also love bonding with my family on Sundays when we go to church together.”
As expected, Solidum also made sure his family is prepared for any disaster that may strike.
“I also conduct our own drills at home to equip my family with the kind of response emergencies require. I reinforce what they learned by discussing which part of the house they should avoid running to during an earthquake for example, and where they should stay for safety.
Director Solidum concluded, “We value our relationship at home, and work is a manifestation of your relationship with your family. That is my philosophy: God, family, country and work. If everything is in place in all three, everything will be alright.”