The quake next time

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The Philippines is among countries most prone to suffer from natural calamities, and the earthquake that hit Bohol and Cebu the other morning demonstrates that depressing fact.

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According to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, the temblor registered 7.2 magnitude on the Richter scale, with the epicenter lying two kilometers from Carmen, Bohol.

No wonder at least a hundred people died in that province alone. Ten perished in nearby Cebu City. Hopefully, the death toll does not go up any further.

Tectonic plate movements are not the only natural phenomena that bring us grief.

On the average, 20 typhoons come every year with dreadful regularity. Some of them cause the death of hundreds—almost a thousand in the case of Sendong and more than 400 each for Ondoy and Pepeng—and the destruction of hundreds of millions of pesos in agriculture and infrastructure.

Then there are the volcanic eruptions.

In June 1991, Mount Pinatubo, after lying dormant for the past 450 years, awoke to bury houses and erase rivers and waterways from the map. Mercifully there were very few deaths, the people having been forewarned of the impending disaster.

The other day’s earthquake practically brought the Church of San Pedro Apostol in Loboc, Bohol, tumbling to the ground, along with six other century-old Catholic houses of worship in the province. Three churches in Cebu City also sustained damages.

But that’s nothing compared to what Mayon Volcano wrought when it erupted in February 1814. It buried the Cagsawa Church in Daraga, Albay, leaving only its bell tower visible, a scene that has become an iconic reminder of what mischief that beautiful, almost perfect cone is capable of.

Apart from the dead and injured, some 2.8 million out of Bohol and Cebu’s combined population are affected in one way or another. Their homes, places of business, and offices have collapsed or the structural integrity of the buildings has been compromised.

It will not be the last, nor will it be the worst earthquake.

Unfortunately, science has not come up yet with the technology to predict where or when it will hit next. It could be Metro Manila. And with its close to 12 million inhabitants or 13 percent of the national population, the extent of suffering could be great indeed.

We can track the path of a typhoon and predict its landfall days in advance, as well as measure its intensity, with the use of satellite imaging techniques. Even so, hundreds die from floods and landslides every year, which only shows the inadequacy of our disaster preparedness program.

Seismography enables us to predict volcanic eruptions too. That explains the influx of tourists to Albay whenever Mayon displays signs of activity, hoping to witness the pyrotechnics, of course from a safe distance.

However, that branch of geophysics cannot warn us when an earthquake will come despite advances made in that scientific discipline in recent years.

Hundreds of scientists subject the San Andreas Fault in California to all kinds of tests, using the latest technology. Still, they cannot say with certainty when the Big One will strike.

Civil engineers in the United States, as well as in Japan, another country that suffers so much from the shifting of the earth’s bowels, are trying to come up with structures that can withstand all but “the perfect earthquake.”

For the rest of us, our best bet is to learn how to survive an earthquake—without endangering the lives of our fellowmen.

In Bohol and Cebu, a number died not because buildings collapsed but because people rushed to the nearest exits in panic, thereby crushing others in the process, including a nine-year-old girl.

The National Disaster Coordinating Council should educate people and teach them to act in an orderly manner when disasters strike.

Ultimately, however, the responsibility lies in all of us. We must learn to look after the welfare of others, and that requires us to transcend our own self-interests.

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