pop goes the world: are we really ready?

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 17 March 2011, Thursday

Are We Really Ready?

The earth-water-fire disaster that has devastated Japan has shocked the entire world, which watches with horror as the trifecta of threats continues to result in loss of life and extensive damage to property.

Cars perch on top of a three-story building. Image at Life.com here.

Such was the quake’s magnitude that its force moved the main island of Japan by eight feet and shifted the earth’s axis by nearly four inches, according to Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.

One result of the disaster was to make people in other countries more aware of their vulnerability to similar phenomena. Looking up a graphic of the Pacific Ring of Fire countries, I was appalled to see the Philippine archipelago smack in the center of a red swath demarcating the Ring, situated along the Ring’s southern portion composed of smaller tectonic plates colliding with the Pacific plate.

Image here.

Other islands that lie along this portion are Bougainville, Tonga, the Marianas, and New Zealand, which was hit last month with a 6.3 magnitude quake that toppled buildings like dominoes and killed more than 150 people.

Around the time of the NZ quake, 5.3 magnitude tremors were also felt in the Philippines, but no untoward incidents were reported. Suerte pa rin ang Pilipinas. Disaster has skipped us again, opting to strike below (NZ) and above (Japan) but we can’t keep on counting on luck to shield us from The Big One.

Disaster risk management (DRM) experts have for years been quoting the Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study (MMEIRS) of 2002-04, that was collaborated upon by with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA).

It says that a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Metro Manila could destroy 16,000 buildings and injure at least 150,000 persons.

Architect Felino Palafox Jr. has also, over the years, issued warnings to urban planners to plan for DRM.

In a seven-page paper uploaded to the Internet entitled “Urban Planning, Architecture, and Engineering to Address Hazards: Towards Safer Cities, Towns, and Communities”, Palafox lists disaster prevention “what-to-dos” in the areas of flood-control and flood-prevention measures, urban planning and development to prevent fire spreading in cities, securing open spaces, creation of disaster-proof living zones, establishing preparedness for disaster prevention, setting up systems for fighting disasters, securing evacuation spaces and routes, and preparing for new disaster policies and measures.

The document is scanned and at the bottom bears the signature of Palafox and a note in someone’s handwriting – presumably his – which reads, “These recommendations were submitted to former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. I also submitted to the new administration of President Benigno Aquino III.”

Image from document here.

This, however, was denied by Malacañang Palace deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte, who said in an interview published in another paper on 15 March 2011, “We have not heard from Mr. Palafox…so far we have not received anything…any plan from architect Palafox.”

In any case, President Aquino has already issued instructions to the appropriate government agencies to step up on disaster preparedness measures and to continue monitoring status of the radiation leaks at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor site, to see if the radiation will reach as far as our country.

But how ready are we now to meet such a disaster?

Here’s a sample. In a short paper I did last year for a PhD class on disaster risk management (DRM) communication at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, I did a surface survey of the disaster preparedness of two major Metro Manila cities, Makati and Mandaluyong.

Makati (27.36 sq. km. area, estimated residents 510,000, daytime population 3.7 million) has a disaster risk reduction (DRR) plan in place which includes partnership with various local and international agencies and organizations, one of which is with the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative, for the implementation of the Makati Risk Sensitive Urban Redevelopment Planning pilot project that aims to modify and lessen the physical, social and economic vulnerability of the city to earthquake-related hazards through comprehensive land use planning.

Makati also holds safety, fire, and earthquake drills in private buildings and other establishments in the city, particularly at the Central Business District (CBD).

It has zoning ordinances designed to prevent congestion that could lead to fires, and its land use and construction regulations are in consonance with the Clean Air Act and other relevant laws.

Last year the city received a World Bank grant of US$450,000 to foster knowledge exchange, technical cooperation, and sharing of expertise in risk-sensitive land use planning and local level emergency management. The program will also help further develop technical and institutional capacity-building among city officials, managers, and professionals in critical areas such as earthquake hazard and vulnerability awareness, safe building technologies, and community preparedness.

Makati earthquake risk. Slide from a Powerpoint presentation of the City of Makati.

Mandaluyong (27 sq. km., est. pop. 280,000) holds safety and fire drills in private buildings and other establishments in the city, while its Comprehensive Land Use Plan refers to zoning, land use, and construction regulations. They have emergency response teams in place in case of disaster (like Typhoon Ondoy) to provide immediate assistance and relief, in cooperation with private corporate and individual donors, and the city is also batting for passage of a DRM law for protection on a national scale, inclusive of local government units.

However, both cities face the challenges of financial issues, the need to train personnel to handle disasters and other emergencies, a lack of comprehensive communication programs for DRR plans, and the need to stockpile food and other basic necessities.

In Makati’s barangay Carmona, where I live with my two daughters, a barangay official proudly told me that they possess the official materials on earthquakes and floods. “We have it here!” I glanced around the barangay hall. There were no posters, no handouts, nothing. Puzzled, I asked, “Where?” He held up a USB drive. “In here!”

In other words, Makati City had held DRM seminars for its barangay officials and disseminated what-to-do Powerpoint presentations; yet these were not cascaded to residents, at least to those in our barangay. Of what use are those materials locked up in someone’s flash drive?

Slide from a Powerpoint presentation of the City of Makati.

Japan is one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries, prepared to the hilt for a big earthquake. Yet they are still overwhelmed by the proportions of this disaster. New Zealand, like Japan a First World country, was caught with its pants down in the face of nature’s implacable force.

What if The Big One happens here? We’re great at intellectualizing such problems, but poor at implementing them, reluctant to unlock resources necessary for equipment, training, and communication. Ang galing natin sa papel, pero wala na sa actual. Remember Ondoy?

Are we ready? I don’t think so. And that frightens me. ***

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2 Comments on pop goes the world: are we really ready?

  1. Bea
    17 March 2011 at 8:14 pm (2203 days ago)

    Hay. Looks like we’re all gonna swim. Hehe.

  2. jonas a baile
    17 March 2011 at 9:18 pm (2203 days ago)

    i think now is the time to prepare.. perhaps non-government organizations and civil society can spearhead..

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