A pre-dawn earthquake of magnitude 5.5 hit Itbayat, Batanes, Saturday morning, followed three hours later by a stronger tremor of magnitude 5.9 and still another tremor after two hours of magnitude 5.8. Nine persons were killed and 653 others injured. Many solid structures were damaged, including the concrete bell tower of the Nuestra Señora del Rosario Church.
Search and rescue operations were immediately launched as at least 60 aftershocks were recorded in Ibayat, Basco, Sabang, and other towns of the country’s northernmost province. Police said 911 families sought refuge in evacuation centers. The National Risk Reduction and Management Council said the tremors affected nearly 3,000 people.
The earthquake hit Batanes as the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) held its annual Shake Drills, to keep the people of Metro Manila ready in case of a magnitude-7.2 earthquake which, it is feared, may hit any time now as the “Big One” along the West Valley Fault which runs from Bulacan, across Metro Manila, to Cavite and Laguna.
Also fortuitously, the Batanes earthquake hit just after Buhay partylist Rep. Lito Atienza announced he was calling for a congressional inquiry on a study that reportedly found that substandard steel bars are being used in the construction of some high-rise commercial and residential buildings in the country.
The study, conducted and prepared by engineer Emilio Morales, former chairman of the Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines, said the substandard materials were being used in the construction of some buildings in Metro Manila, which would not be able to withstand a magnitude-7.2 earthquake – which is what the “BigOne” is expected to be when it strikes.
Congressman Atienza said he will ask the House to conduct an investigation of alleged collusion between some government regulatory agencies and some local steel makers. He said the steelmakers are not violating laws regulating the manufacturing of the steel bars, but there may be a stretching of the laws when government agencies approve a Grade 40 steel bar passed off as a Grade 60. “We should not wait for the “Big One” to strike before we act to save thousands of lives,” Atienza said.
The Batanes earthquake was the latest in a series of such natural disasters that have struck in various parts of the country, as well as in other lands, notably China, Indonesia, and Japan, all part of the so-called Ring of Fire around the Pacific regularly hit by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
The annual earthquake drills of the MMDA are aimed at preparing the people to protect themselves, principally by following the advice to Duck, Cover, and Hold, as well as to be ready with emergency materials such as medical kits. Ensuring that our buildings are safe must also be part of our precautions and preparations.