Philippine Authorities Struggle with Quake Aftermath

Once again in the wake of a Philippine disaster, authorities are belatedly struggling after the fact to determine the magnitude of the catastrophe and determine a course of action for the next one. This is a country battered by a constant series of floods, fires, earthquakes, volcanoes and typhoons that authorities have not yet learned to cope with.

A powerful 6.9 magnitude earthquake flattened homes, twisted roads and killed at least 113 villagers on the island of Negros on Feb. 6, leaving authorities struggling to map out hidden earthquake faults to be able to respond better in the future. Authorities indicated Monday that 52 bodies have been found and that they have lost hope of finding any survivors among the 61 people still missing.

Although the Philippines’ 7,000-odd islands lie on the so-called “ring of fire,” a 40,000-km horseshoe of fractures, oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs and belts and plate movements in the Pacific Basin, the country remains woefully unprepared for quakes and has done precious little mapping to find out where they are. Tectonic forces are compressing the Philippines into what is called the Philippine Mobile Belt, a series of tectonic blocks and strips running north and south. These plates have compressed and lifted parts of the country, causing extensive faulting and producing volcanoes like Mount Pinatubo, which cooked off in 1991, ejecting 10 cubic km. of magma and 20 million tons of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere, ultimately cutting global temperatures by 0.5C, more than any eruption since that of Krakatau in Indonesia in 1883.

However, the authorities so far have mapped out about a dozen of the faults. Seismologists believe the quake was caused by the movement of a "blind fault line" - or a previously unknown fault line - under a narrow strait between Negros and the island of Cebu, catching disaster response officials by surprise.

The authorities said the destruction in the Feb. 6 quake was extensive because many residents in the Negros towns of Guihulngan and La Libertad had for years unknowingly lived in vulnerable areas on the sides of mountain and at the foot of the slopes where they farmed the fertile land.

The government said it is enhancing environmental funds to attempt to forestall natural disasters and to respond better. As often is the case in Philippine disasters, authorities were uncoordinated, slow to attempt to help the distressed or find the missing, and unable to provide adequate medical and other care for the survivors.

"Many of the houses [were] made of light materials, not earthquake proof. The bridges and roads were not as strongly built to withstand a powerful quake and many had for many years ignored warnings against living on the slopes because there had never been quakes in these areas," Benito Ramos, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, told IRIN, a news agency operated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"The Philvolcs [Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology] is now trying to locate and map these so-called blind faults after this quake," Ramos told IRIN. Because many faults have been under-studied, entire communities had for years built residential areas over them. Two other known faults are the Manila Bay and Manila Trench fault lines, which could lead to powerful destructions, according to the 2004 Metro Manila Earthquake Reduction Study in the capital city.

According to Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a Manila-based country risk assessment organization, 20 earthquakes are recorded every day in the Philippines, 200 of them of magnitude big enough to be felt. According to the 2010 PSA report, “despite national assistance programs that have gained momentum over the course of the last several years, unreliable infrastructure systems, informal settlements in the form of slums and squatters in hazardous areas and a lack of government resources and coordination between national and local disaster management authorities are just some of the factors that plague the country’s natural disaster preparedness.”

"There is now a rush to map up all of these other so-called blind faults - or the small ones that were previously unknown," Ramos told IRIN, adding that Philvolcs has yet to determine how many there are.

The 2004 Metro Manila Earthquake Reduction Study concluded that a 7.2 magnitude earthquake resulting from the movement of the Manila Trench, for example, could kill as many as 50,000 people in Manila, the home of 12 million people, which rises to 14 million during working hours. Such a quake would destroy a third of the public buildings and 13 percent of the residential buildings, rendering 1.2 million people homeless.

Metropolitan Manila Development Authority head Francis Tolentino said disaster response training for local officials covering the 17 districts was being improved, while much needed search and rescue equipment will be pre-positioned in areas critical to saving lives, like under bridges, for example.

"We need to train more volunteers for disaster response," said Tolentino. "We will also train volunteers from the nearby regions, because if a quake strikes Manila, they will be the first responders. We will also boost the number of container vans with emergency and rescue equipment like hydraulic tools and cutting and digging equipment, which we would preposition around Manila."

Ramos said the warnings are not meant to scare the public, but rather empower them in case of a major earthquake. "We don't want a repeat of Negros."

The disastrous state of public preparedness was exemplified by the government’s 2010 response to Typhoon Ondoy, known internationally as Typhoon Ketsana, which hovered over Manila for several days, plunging the city into a state of calamity from which it took months to recover. The Philippines is hit by as many as 20 major typhoons each year.

(With reporting from IRIN, which says its reports do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations)