Monday, March 14, 2011

Disaster preparedness

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Many things can be written in the aftermath of 8.9-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan and the tsunami it unleashed last Friday - but where and how do we begin?

I’ve seen quite a lot of really horrifying things in the more than four decades that I have lived in this planet, but the images we saw over the weekend set new benchmarks. The extent of the devastation left most of us with our mouths agape, searching for the right words to describe the horror.

Truly, we are all puny to the wrath and fury of Mother Nature.

Like most people, I cannot imagine how it would feel like to experience an earthquake of that magnitude. The 7.7-magnitude earthquake which brought the Hyatt Terraces Hotel in Baguio City and a number of buildings in Cabanatuan and other parts of Luzon crushing to the ground in 1990 seemed to pale in comparison to the earthquake that struck last Friday. But those of us who went through that experience in 1990 can still recall the unspeakable terror. I was at that time attending a training program high up at the penthouse of a high-rise building in Makati and believe me, it felt like the whole building was about to crash to the ground.

We are told by experts though that the strength of an earthquake does not automatically determine the kind of devastation that would follow. The 8.8-earthquake that struck Chile last year caused relatively less devastation compared to the 7.0 quake that hit Haiti also last year. It all boils down to the level of preparedness as well as the level of earthquake engineering that is in place in a particular country.

There were no clear indicators yet as to the real extent of the damage wrought by the earthquake that hit Japan last Friday, although most experts were optimistic that the direct casualty from the earthquake would be much less precisely because Japan is a country that takes seriously disaster preparedness as well as compliance with building regulations designed to withstand powerful earthquakes. Apparently, most of the devastation was wrought by the tsunami—in some areas, 40-feet meter high walls of water—that swept cars, ships, buildings and everything else along its path.

If such devastation could happen to a country like Japan where people are more conscientious about disaster preparedness and where government imposes stricter controls on earthquake engineering, imagine the kind of destruction that could occur to a country like the Philippines! We don’t have earthquake drills in this country, much less tsunami drills. Most houses in this country are constructed without the benefit of earthquake engineering. Many of our coastlines are dotted with squatter colonies composed of shanties that stand no chance of surviving a tsunami.

In this context, the sighs of relief that many heaved on account of the fact that the natural disasters spared the country seem justified. I am not sure though that gloating about how lucky we are, or how blessed we all are, or even about how special we are in the eyes of God, speaks well of ourselves as a people. Surely, the Japanese are not children of a lesser God.

But as usual, many religious zealots could not help themselves. At the Holy Mass I attended yesterday morning, I felt like walking out of the Church in the middle of the homily because the priest tried to establish a connection between natural disasters and what he said were the total breakdown of values in society. Naturally, the priest launched into another tirade against the reproductive health bill effectively threatening the faithful that support of the bill, which he said is the handiwork of the devil, will invite more disasters into the country. This is the kind of narrow-mindedness and prejudice that we have to put up with from our religious leaders in this country.

There are many lessons we can draw from the tragedy that happened over the weekend. It’s important that we learn from what happened because the probability that a similar catastrophe will befall us is high. As many experts have been saying all this time, it’s a question of when.

We need to aggressively put in place programs that would increase our level of preparedness to deal with similar disasters. For example, we need to make sure that all building projects strictly comply with earthquake engineering requirements. This applies to high-rise buildings as well as residential houses that are just as susceptible to collapsing during a massive earthquake if not built to standards.

We need to put in place various disaster preparation programs. The tsunami alert that was issued last Friday was successful because there was more than enough time from the time the tsunami struck the northern coast of Japan and the time it was supposed to hit islands along our eastern coast. But it won’t always be like what happened last Friday, we won’t always have the luxury of time.

A sister and her family and some cousins live along the fringes of the Pacific Ocean in Leyte. When I called her last Friday to warn her about the tsunami, she told me that they were already on their way to higher grounds because the community leaders of the town including school officials immediately went to work informing people of the danger as soon as they heard the news. Of course the information that got passed on from one person to the next in the streets were exaggerated, some bordering on irresponsible rumor-mongering. This naturally caused quite a number of blood pressures to soar to the stratosphere, but at least most people were able to respond to the warning. We need to make sure that in the future we are able to deliver information and warnings in a much better way—faster, yes; but also with focus on accuracy.

We also need to put in place programs that would enable us to respond in a more coordinated and effective way to the aftermath of a disaster. Relief and recovery efforts are always difficult after a disaster—but planning and preparation always make efforts more effective.

We may be puny in the face of major natural disasters, but there’s always many things we can do to mitigate the impact of such disasters.

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