Thursday, March 11, 2010

Of earthshaking significance

This was my column yesterday.

How exactly are people supposed to behave during an earthquake?

I am not sure if there is now a standard drill being taught in schools on how to survive earthquakes. I personally don’t remember having gone through anything of the sort when I was a student although I reckon that the basic principles in managing calamities and crises also apply. Not that we, as a people, pay heed anyway.

I have a very strong feeling that we’re simply not wired to be proactive in our approach to calamities and crises. Some experts attribute this to the bahala na (roughly, just leave it to fate or God) syndrome.

For example, annual fire drills are standard in most organizations in this country. I’ve been through quite a number of them myself, including one traumatic experience that required climbing down 30 flights of stairs in a pitch-dark sweltering tunnel. I almost died from claustrophobia. And yet during actual fires we still see people scampering for safety in all directions instead of applying what they were supposed to have mastered in a fire drill. We’ve had more than enough experience with typhoons, floods, droughts, etc. and yet I don’t think we can honestly say that we have ever reached a level of preparedness to deal with these calamities.

Here and there, however, I’m sure we’ve all picked up a tip or two about how to behave during an earthquake. The problem is that we’ve never really had validation that what we have learned is sound advice. For example, is it really advisable to stand under the beams of a doorway during an earthquake? I remember learning this piece of advice from a former boss who, at the height of the July 16, 1990 earthquake that leveled the Hyatt Hotel in Baguio to the ground, hollered to all of us who were then at the 19th floor of a building on Ayala Avenue to follow his lead. He was literally swaying while clutching the beams of a doorway.

Should we climb to the top of the building or should we dash down to the ground floor? I am not really sure if this anecdote is true but a friend who used to work in a Japanese firm swears that during one earthquake it was an amusing sight to witness Filipinos all rushing down to the parking area while their Japanese counterparts all trooped up to the rooftop of their building. It turns out that people should actually stay away from staircases during and after an earthquake.

This has been a year of deadly earthquakes. Within barely weeks of each other, three massive earthquakes devastated Haiti, Chile, and Turkey. The earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12 was supposedly the strongest earthquake to hit the region in two centuries. The magnitude 8.8 quake that hit Chile on February 27 killed a still undetermined number of people and sent a tsunami across the Pacific including parts of the Philippines. Another earthquake hit Turkey a couple of days ago although the number of casualties and the extent of the damage paled in comparison to the Haiti and Chile earthquakes which probably explains the lack of media attention.

Earthquakes do happen everyday. There’s a site in the Internet that tracks earthquakes all over the world on a daily basis and the statistics are astounding —there’s practically an earthquake happening in some part of the world every hour, although mercifully not in magnitudes higher than 5 in the Richter scale. Given the massive attention on earthquakes, one can only wish there were more information campaigns on how to protect or save one’s self during catastrophic earthquake.

An email that is going around once again, obviously as an offshoot of the three major earthquakes that happened recently, is that one which contains extracts from the article “The Triangle of Life” written by Doug Copp, a rescue expert in America. Copp’s credentials as an expert in disaster management and rescues are quite solid. The email is not a hoax as confirmed in snopes.com. Copp does exist in real life and his rather controversial theory is the subject of intense discussion among agencies dealing with rescue and crisis situations.

In his article, Copp debunked the traditional advice of “drop, cover, and hold on” in case of an earthquake. Copp recommended instead that, at the onset of a major earthquake, building occupants should seek shelter near or beside solid items, not under. The theory requires that people reexamine what they have been taught is proper, which is to crawl under a bed, table, or other solid objectives to avoid being crushed by falling debris during an earthquake. Copp says that based on his vast experiences, most victims of an earthquake die this way—being crushed under the same solid objects that they initially thought would save their lives.

Copp’s theory is that falling objects create a “triangle” during an earthquake and this triangle provides the protective space such as a void or space that could prevent injury or permit survival in the event of a major structural failure. So instead of ducking under tables or under doorways, Copp advises that people curl up into a fetal position next or beside an object such as a sofa, a bed, a table, a large chair, etc. When inside cars, his advice is for people to get out of the cars and to sit or lie next to them to avoid being crushed by falling objects such as slabs of concrete from bridges or buildings nearby.

Is Copp’s theory valid? Experts are still debating the issue. However, the American Red Cross has come up with a response that essentially deflates Copp’s assertions. The American Red Cross said in an email that is also going around today that the “drop, cover, and hold on” strategy during an earthquake is correct, accurate and appropriate” but adds the important qualifier—“in the United States.” The Red Cross insisted that Copp’s recommendations are not applicable to the United States setting because of its strict building codes and construction standards which make the probability of buildings collapsing or doing a “pancake” virtually impossible. Sadly, the Red Cross did not categorically state whether Copp’s advice is applicable to other countries such as the Philippines. Perhaps the national government agency responsible should come up with a recommendation on what works in our case because it seems our building code and construction standards are hardly comparable to those in the United States. Does this mean Copp’s triangle is more applicable to us then?

At any rate, the Red Cross did come up with statistics that indicate that more people die or get injured while fleeing from their houses or from carelessness when dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake. Many people run barefoot across broken glass or climb down stairs that are not stable anymore after an earthquake. The Red Cross concluded that “drop, cover, and hold on” is the simplest, reliable, and easiest method to teach people, including children. Incidentally, the Red Cross also reminded people that the use of a doorway for earthquake protection is not advisable as “many doorways are not built into the structural integrity of a building, and may not offer protection.”

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