A 50-year-old disaster that’s bound to strike again

Former Senator

For Manila’s old-timers, this tragedy is certainly unforgettable even if it happened exactly half a century ago.
At 4:19 a.m. on August 2, 1968, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake swept across Luzon and caused the collapse of the six-story Ruby Tower on Doroteo Jose Street in Binondo, Manila, crushing to death 268 people and injuring 261 others.

In terms of human lives lost and extent of damage to buildings, the quake is considered to be one of the deadliest and most destructive to hit the Philippines in modern times.

The ill-fated Ruby Tower had 19 commercial establishments on the ground floor, 19 offices on the second floor, and 76 residential apartments on the four upper floors. Except for a northern end portion of the first and second floors, most of the building collapsed – instantly killing sleeping residents. Others trapped underneath the rubble suffered slow death as rescuers could not reach them on time.

A team of experts commissioned then by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and dispatched to the disaster site found many structural flaws which included “flexible reinforced concrete frames, unbalanced walls, rigid exterior columns, beams shortened by walls, low concrete strength, insufficient reinforcing of corner columns and inadequate column ties.”

“Initial failure probably occurred in the first-story columns at the southern end. Inertia forces would have caused torsional swaying with the largest deformation at the southern end,” according to the report on the Ruby Tower tragedy.

Many other buildings in Manila suffered severe damage, such as the Philippine Bar Association building in Intramuros, Aloha Theater on Dasmariñas St., and Tuason building on Escolta St. Those inflicted “considerable damage” were National Library on T.M. Kalaw St., Liwayway Hotel on Echague St., Diamond Tower Apartments on Magdalena St., and Old Philippine National Bank, Boie on Escolta St. Also damaged were La Tondeña, Phoenix, and the Far Eastern University Arts and Sciences wing.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the deadly quake, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Philvocs) held a symposium last week and set up an exhibit at the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Manila “to encourage the public to look back and remember not only the tragedy but also the lessons learned from the disaster.”

The epicenter of the quake was traced to Casiguran in Quezon province, now part of Aurora. “Ruby Tower collapsed from an earthquake with an epicenter more than 200 kilometers away. It is a reminder for everyone that a strong ground shaking, even if the source of the earthquake originated far away, can cause significant damage to houses, buildings and infrastructures if these are poorly built,” explained the country’s foremost earthquake expert, Phivolcs chief Renato Solidum.

Although the Philippines has updated its building code since the 1968 tragedy to enable structures to withstand strong quakes, more efforts still have to be exerted. “The main issue is implementation and inspection of buildings and houses during construction,” Solidum said.

So much more has to be done indeed to be prepared for the so-called “Big One” that would surely hit in the future. Noted urban planner and architect Felino “Jun” Palafox has also called for more preparations: “While there are efforts on the part of the government, the Philippines remains largely unprepared for such an eventuality, with many of the country’s bridges and old buildings needing reinforcements and retrofitting to withstand such a strong force.”

Solidum has repeatedly warned of more quakes to come: “The Philippines is prone to hazards including earthquakes due to its geological location. It is in the Pacific Ring of Fire.” He said that the West Marikina Valley Fault – which runs from Bulacan through Quezon City and eastern parts of Metro Manila all the way to Laguna and Cavite – last moved in 1658 or 360 years ago and is expected to move every 400 years on average.

Two extensive studies of the possible effects in Metro Manila of a major earthquake – the Greater Metro Manila Area Risk Analysis Project and the Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study – have drawn similar terrifying scenes of apocalyptic doomsday: Around 35,000 deaths, half a million injuries, 500 simultaneous fires in collapsed structures, and about P2.4 trillion in damage.

Yet despite all the doomsday warnings in these two studies, it is lamentable that nothing much – except for periodic earthquake drills – is being done to strengthen our state of preparedness.

Local government units must take the lead in conducting extensive assessment of all buildings, houses, and infrastructure within their jurisdiction to determine those that are of great risk so that corrective retrofitting measures, if not outright demolition, are done on defective structures.

Civic-minded structural engineers and architects may form into groups and, in the spirit of bayanihan, do “engineering missions” on informal settlers’ houses and help strengthen them. We must also learn from Japan, the world’s foremost authority on earthquakes, where all schoolchildren are trained with regular drills how to respond to quakes, and emergency kits of drinking water, dry rations, and medical supplies are abundant in offices and many homes.

And constantly imploring God’s protection should give us peace of mind as we prepare for the Big One.

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