How dangerous is it to live in the Philippines: Earthquake mapping and risk assessment

Baguio City 1990

I find it amusing that two of my foreigner friends (Risto and Hugo) almost posted this link from CNN that reveals that Manila would be unprepared on the event of a devastating earthquake. Manila has a major fault running along the eastern spine of the city and thousands of homes and buildings are currently standing on top or right next to the fault line.

There was a study done by Japanese experts from 2002 to 2004 projects that over 50 000 deaths could result from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake. Aside from this, the experts also predicted that well over 1.3 million buildings could be destroyed and 500 fires could be simultaneously ignited due to the tremors. Given how the Philippine government responded to the Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) aftermath, it’s very likely that the federal response to a disaster of a greater scale and magnitude would be as negligible. 

If you’re not confident about how sturdy the skyscrapers are in the country, you would probably shudder at the thought of how improvised houses made out of concrete and scraps would hold up in the intense shaking of a catastrophic quake. While Manila does get its share of mild tremors, it has yet to be rocked hard by an earthquake in the past eighty years. In fact, the strongest one in recent history would have to be 1863 Manila quake that all but leveled parts of the Manila Cathedral. The simple truth is that Manila has yet to be tested by a big bad earthquake that could be comparable to the likes of what Tokyo, Kobe, San Francisco, Santiago (Chile) and parts of China have experienced in recent history.

In this map completed by the Manila Observatory and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, it’s possible to see the most vulnerable places in the Philippines when it comes to tectonic activity. The darker the shade of red is, the more likely it is for a region to suffer grave damage from an earthquake. Nueva Ecija which lies on top of the very patch of land that generated the deadly and destructive 1990 Luzon Quake is in the deep red along with Benguet, La Union, Zambales, Pampanga, Nueva Vizcaya, Pampanga, Tarlac, Ifugao and Mountain Province (where Sagada is).

It must be noted that while most of these provinces are not as densely populated as the other provinces in Southern Luzon; the geophysical location of these places would potentially make it hard for much needed help to come in. The provinces in the Cordillera will definitely get cut off once a major earthquake strikes and aside from Baguio (which actually lies on the remote western bank of the region), there are simply no other urban centers that can support the needs of the Cordilleras should something happen in this area. Landslides have been happening along the Halsema Highway (the ONLY road that links the towns of the Cordillera Administrative Region) even without much rain or shaking, so an earthquake would certainly be a major headache.

When the big one does happen, Manila would be a big mess. The shoddy implementation of the building code would make one believe that many buildings – even those that are over ten storeys high – would probably collapse in the event of a major quake. Manila hasn’t been hit by a magnitude 6.0+ quake in a long while and the new buildings have yet to be tested. Once buildings collapse into roads, the whole search and rescue operation would be compromised – assuming that there’s an operation to begin with. The corps of volunteers and professionals who are tasked to do these things. It would be a wild and personal battle between survivors to lobby, plead and threaten rescuers to make them pick a particular collapsed building first instead of another nearby edifice. It’s going to be nasty. We are already seeing the worst in many people now – just imagine how’s it going to be when the fecal matter literally hits the proverbial rotary fan.

Prominent architect Jun Palafox related a very detailed ten-year plan for Metro Manila shortly after the quake that devastated Port-au-Prince January 2010. To this day, no visible concrete actions has been done to step up regulations, improve public awareness and institute a culture of preparedness among the Filipino people. There’s a level of fatalism that is so entrenched in the Pinoy psych. As a nation, the country has seen one of the worst tragedies of the past 100 years (one of the worst floods, worst volcanic eruption, worst maritime disasters etc.) but no one seems to care. And these are just the NATURAL disasters – we’re not even talking about the political and societal disasters that we face everyday.

The US Embassy provides its citizens in Japan a document of what the Japanese people are taught from childhood – earthquake preparedness. While we await the actions of the glorious Noynoy Aquino regime, take time to thumb through these pages.


2 thoughts on “How dangerous is it to live in the Philippines: Earthquake mapping and risk assessment

  1. Living in California I know how you feel about earthquakes. They’ve been telling us to expect “The Big One” my entire life. After seeing the destruction in Japan, New Zealand, Chile, and Haiti in the past couple years it really makes you wonder if you’re prepared for an earthquake.

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