Shaking Down Manila

If a major earthquake were to hit Metro Manila in the Philippines, bulging with 25.5 million people in the greater urban area, they would likely have to fend for themselves, according to a new report by the Manila-based Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a country risk firm.

Given the inadequate state of rescue facilities and the lack of people and equipment to man them, calamity seems almost certain in a major temblor. Beset with bad planning and lack of resources, the massive mega-city has been lucky so far to have escaped such a quake, although it has had plenty of other problems including typhoons that have paralyzed it, sometimes for weeks.

In the past month, at least 50 earthquakes of 4.5 magnitude or greater have struck within 500 kilometers of the Philippines, spurring PSA to update a 2010 report on earthquake preparedness. Things are no better today. The population has grown, more haphazard building has continued.

On Nov. 15, a 7.1 tremor occurred off the coast of Indonesia, triggering a tsunami warning and several days of aftershocks, although no waves hit the Philippines. The event highlighted yet again the need for greater planning and resources.

There is no way of predicting earthquakes, as an Italian appeals court finally agreed on Monday when it cleared seven prominent earthquake experts who were jailed in 2012 on manslaughter charges for failing to warn the residents of the city of L’Aquila before a quake that killed more than 300 people. But scientists forecast that there will be as many as 18 major quakes of 7.1 magnitude or more every year, and they agree that Metro Manila, surrounded by five fault zones, is vulnerable.

Economic Heart

Unfortunately, after years of breakneck population growth, in-migration from outlying areas and a near-complete lack of planning or updating of disaster services, according to PSA, Metro Manila is one of the most vulnerable cities on earth. Over the past 400 years, the country has experienced roughly 90 destructive quakes, including 13 since 1958, the most recent in Bohol which took 1,026 casualties and reduced Spanish-era landmark cathedrals to rubble.

Metro Manila generates some 35 percent of total gross domestic product in the country. It is also home to the national government. A major quake could cripple much of that infrastructure.

As economic refugees have rushed into the city, low-lying and flood-prone suburbs such as Pasig, Marikina, Pateros and Taguig have been built on structurally inferior soils from shoreline sediment that would liquefy in a major shake, effectively turning into a kind of soup that would be unable to support foundations for buildings, bridges and other structures. A huge amount of new construction on reclaimed Manila Bay landfill has occurred in Pasay City, Paranaque and other coastal areas.

The most destructive byproduct of rapid urbanization and poor urban planning is regional separation. According to PSA, a major quake would separate Manila into four areas due to collapsed buildings, elevated highways and bridges and impassable roads, making it impossible to coordinate rescue activities.

Fire Alarm

Any serious earthquake would likely set off fires that would do further damage. Charcoal and butane canisters are commonly used in the shantytowns that prevail across the city, which would probably lead to destruction of slums. Poor firefighting capabilities and the probable loss of vulnerable water systems would complicate the efforts to combat fires.

The report describes the city’s overall firefighting capability as “abysmal,” with the bureau of fire protection facing a lack of fire trucks, stations and trained manpower.

The metropolitan area has only 125 fire trucks and needs more than twice as many. There are 135 existing fire stations; 303 are needed. The city has 2,496 firemen but needs 3,479, PSA says.

“Lack of hospitals, fire trucks and logistics equipment are likely to hinder rescue and relief. There are fewer than 250 hospitals, to serve 25.5 million people." The number of medical personnel, hospital facilities and ambulances are insufficient to treat thousands of victims at the same time.

PSA quotes a government study that given lack of zoning and the prevalence of endemic corruption, a 7.2 earthquake would damage at least 40 percent of residential buildings. Roughly 175,000 buildings would be heavily damaged and 345,000 would be partly damaged.

PSA, however, says the situation could be far worse and that any credible structural census would result in a recommendation that 30 to 40 percent of Metro Manila buildings must be condemned and rebuilt.

Damage to Metro Manila’s road systems would hinder traffic movement in the metropolis, constraining the mobility of people, goods and services. Debris from collapsed bridges, flyovers, railways and other elevated structures would further constrain land travel. Companies that have supply chains extending to the north and south of Metro Manila are likely to suffer crippling logistic delays.

It is a grim picture.

If it Happens

PSA lists 12 guidelines to follow before a quake: know the hazards in your house, check if your building is near a fault line, strap furniture and cabinets to the walls, turn off gas tanks when not in use, familiarize yourself with exit routes, and know where home fire equipment and emergency supplies are located.

During a quake, if you’re in a sound building, don’t go out. Duck under a sturdy table or desk and hold onto it. stay away from glass windows, look out for falling objects. If you are outside, move to an open area, stay away from trees, power lines, posts and vulnerable structures.

Of course, don't use elevators, don’t go into damaged buildings, check water and electrical lines for damage, watch for chemical or toxic spills, if you leave your residence, post a sign saying where you are. Don’t drive. The roads should be left for relief vehicles. Don’t make unnecessary phone calls because the authorities are going to need the lines for emergencies.