Another reminder of our vulnerability

Published September 17, 2019, 12:21 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat



Atty. Joey D. Lina
Atty. Joey D. Lina

The magnitude-5.5 quake that hit Quezon province and reverberated across Luzon including Metro Manila last Friday ought to prompt intensified action on the pressing need for more measures to mitigate destruction that could lead to loss of precious lives.

Although all public buildings and structures in Metro Manila have been subjected to vulnerability assessment, according to the Department of Public Works and Highways, authorities have not yet identified all the private buildings that need to be reinforced, retrofitted, or condemned outright and demolished.

And reports are still persistent that substandard steel bars used in construction are being sold in many provinces at the risk of consumer safety. Inspection teams from the Department of Trade and Industry busted last July several hardware stores selling inferior construction materials in Bataan and South Cotabato. The Philippine Iron and Steel Institute said earlier that “test buy” operations on substandard steel have flagged many hardware stores in Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, and Occidental Mindoro, as well as in Benguet, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Pampanga, and Bulacan.

Also disturbing are reports on the proliferation in the country of steel-making equipment known as induction furnaces that have been “banned in China in 2017 as part of a crackdown on manufacturers of low-quality steel.” The Iron and Steel Council of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations warned that the Philippines and Indonesia have “become a preferred dumping ground for the obsolete and unwanted equipment” prohibited in China.

Apart from low-grade steel products, there are also reports of substandard cement, including those from shipments that pass through the Bureau of Customs.

But aside from inferior construction materials, there are also problems with current laws such as the National Building Code which needs improvement. Rep. Bayani Fernando has proposed legislation to establish the Philippine Building Act of 2019 for the purpose of “regulating the planning, design, construction, occupancy, and maintenance of public and private buildings, enacting a new Building Act…” mainly to protect life and property.

The consequences of inferior building materials and defective construction were evident in one of the deadliest and most destructive quakes to hit the Philippines in modern times – the collapse of the Ruby Tower in Binondo, Manila, where 268 people were crushed to death when a 7.3-magnitude quake swept across Luzon at 4:19 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1968.

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, including “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.

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 earthquake originated far away can cause significant damage to houses, buildings, and infrastructures if these are poorly built,” explained the country’s foremost quake expert said 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. Renowned 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 east of Metro Manila to Laguna and Cavite – last moved 360 years ago and “is expected to move every 400 years on average.”

Two studies predict grim scenarios when the “Big One” hits. The Metro Manila Impact Reduction Study, conducted from 2002 to 2004 by Philvolcs, MMDA, and Japan International Cooperation Agency, came up with terrifying projections – 35,000 deaths, 500 simultaneous fires in many buildings. The other study, Greater Metro Manila Area Risk Analysis Project, disclosed in 2013 that a 7.2-magnitude earthquake along the West Valley Fault can cause collapse of structures within a span of 1,100 hectares that could kill 37,000 and cause P2.4 trillion in damage.

The grim warnings ought to compel more reinforcement and retrofitting of structures, and house to house inspections to evaluate structural integrity and determine how to correct deficiencies. And constantly imploring God’s protection should give us peace of mind as we prepare for the Big One.

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