Manila Set to Shake, Rattle and Roll

If a 7.2 magnitude earthquake were to hit Metro Manila, a vast conurbation of 11 to 12 million people, the devastation would appear both unthinkable and unavoidable, according to an exhaustive report by Pacific Strategies and Assessments which was released Tuesday. The city could take months, perhaps years, to recover.

"The city sits astride and is surrounded by major onshore and offshore fault lines and imperceptible tremors are felt in Manila every week," according to the PSA Metro Manila Earthquake Vulnerability Assessment, which warns that "Even if an organization operating in Metro Manila has a business continuity plan, it has likely gone ignored and forgotten and probably addressed now-remote threats such as social unrest or military coups instead of the much higher probability and impact risk such as earthquakes, typhoons and pandemics.

"Given the fact that the Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone nations on earth, the reality is that earthquakes and other such natural disasters represent the most significant threats to business continuity," the PSA report continues.

In a 7.2 shake, as many as 34,000 people would be killed instantly from collapsing structures and another 20,000 would die after being trapped or burned, according to the report, which builds on a 2004 Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study. Nearly 40 percent of the structures in the city would be destroyed, with 110,000 people injured, and with no access to clean water and sanitary conditions. Some 1.2 million people would be made homeless and a quarter of critical public facilities such as hospitals, schools, firehouses police posts and government structures at least moderately damaged.

PSA undertook the study in the wake of devastating earthquakes that struck Haiti and Chile as quake experts have begun scanning the globe for other high-risk areas.

This is not a theoretical exercise for either Manila or the Philippines. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology reported that the capital city is "vulnerable to a severe earthquake that is highly likely to originate from the Valley Fault System," which lies only 10 km from the Central Business District in Makati City. About 20 minor earthquakes are recorded per day, 200 of them felt annually in the Philippines. And, while there have been about 90 destructive earthquakes in the country over the last 400 years, Manila has been largely spared."

Unfortunately, every indication is that both governments and businesses are completely unprepared for such an eventuality. The report points to the onset of Typhoon Ondoy, which hit Metro Manila on Sept. 25, 2009 and plunged the city into a state of calamity. Despite the fact that the typhoon hit the most accessible area in the country, where relief facilities are concentrated and the government’s presence ought to be most established, Ondoy paralyzed the city. For weeks afterwards the government was still struggling to get relief supplies to affected residents.

Manila sits within range of two active volcanoes. One, the Taal volcano some 65 km. to the south, has been venting gas and steam over the past two months.

In the aftermath of a major earthquake event," the report says, "Metro Manila would more closely resemble Port au Prince than the cities recently affected by earthquakes in central Chile and China." Thus rubble and collapsed buildings would dominate the cityscape after six months, and most roads would be impassable or of only limited use. The report warns that since a full third of the Philippines’ gross domestic product is concentrated in the Manila area, if damage is concentrated in the area, "the national system may collapse."

Key findings of the PSA report are that:

  • Corruption has long been established in the building construction and inspection process as construction companies attempt to save money by circumventing and manipulating the compliance process, with kickbacks which "frequently result in substandard construction of roads, bridges, schools and other public buildings…any credible structural evaluation of the majority of Metro Manila buildings would result in recommendations to condemn and rebuild 30 to 40 percent of them.

  • The terrain is dominated by quatemay allurium soil, which is generally not suitable for construction of big buildings because of the fact that it would probably liquefy in a major quake.

  • An offshore quake could kick off a sea surge that would flood into Manila Bay and the immediate areas of Old Manila and stop the flow of water out of the mouth of the Pasig River, resulting in flooding communities including Malacanang Palace.

  • The lack of coordination and check-and-balance mechanisms between national and local governments has weakened the enforcement of building standards, with many residential and commercial buildings built on hazard-prone areas using substandard building materials.

  • The collapse of elevated highways and bridges, impassable roads and fires could result in the separation of Manila into four separate areas. If the Guadalupe Bridge across the Pasig River were to collapse or be severely damaged, the Ortigas Center area could be cut off from the areas to the south, including Makati City.

  • Charcoal and butane canister cooking fires in the shanty towns across much of Manila would lead to major fires that would destroy wide swaths of the poorer sections of the city. Inadequate firefighting capabilities and the probable loss of water in many areas would hamper efforts to combat the fires.

  • Existing rescue and relief facilities would be simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of the casualties and injuries. Lack of hospitals, fire trucks and logistics equipment would likely hinder rescue operations. It is estimated that 70 percent of Manila’s water hydrants have no water.

  • The collapse of elevated bridges and flyovers would have a significant impact on business operations, crippling Metro Manila’s already chaotic traffic movement, preventing employees from reaching places of employment or returning home afterwards. Evacuation and rescue services would be stalled. Given substandard building practices, elevated structures face the possibility of falling or toppling, totally shutting off access to the inner city.

"Despite international assistance programs that have gained considerable momentum over the course of the last several years," the report says, "unreliable infrastructure systems, poor building standards due to corruption in the construction and inspection process, informal settlements in the form of slums and squatters in hazardous areas, and a lack of government resources and coordination between natonal and local disaster management authorities are just some of the factors that plague the country’s natural disaster preparedness."