Lessons from the Bohol disaster: Part 1

Dean Tony La Viña, Kristoffer Berse

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

The Visayas earthquake is once again the best argument for an independent national disaster agency

Bohol is no stranger to disasters, be it hydro-meteorological or geological in nature. Typhoons come and go through the province every year, leaving a path of destruction along the way. This is expected to intensify in the future, as the number of tropical cyclones is projected to increase in the Visayas due to climate change.

Earthquakes are not so distant a memory to Boholanos either. On May 27, 1996, a 5.6-magnitude earthquake jolted at least 5 municipalities and caused minor damage to poorly built houses and buildings. Most of the affected structures were made of old wood, masonry and limestone.

But the earthquake that hit the province last October 15th was a monster like no other. It originated deep from the heart of Chocolate Hills, generating a 7.2-magnitude tremor that was felt all the way in Davao City in Mindanao, and Masbate and Sorsogon in the Bicol region. In neighboring Cebu province, it generated landslides and caused a stampede where a 4-year old child was killed.

An act of God?

Soon after news of the tragedy broke out, photos and videos of centuries-old churches in Bohol and Cebu succumbing to the force of nature proliferated on Facebook and Twitter. It took no time for the old belief that disasters are “acts of God” to surface on social networking sites. The devastation even prompted some social media commenters to blame the younger generation of Boholanos and Cebuanos for supposedly being less religious.

Our propensity to view disasters as a form of divine retribution for our misdeeds and failings, with God expressing his displeasure through nature, is not new and certainly not unique to Filipinos. It is prevalent in other societies, regardless of religious denomination, and often used to justify lack of action or intervention even in the face of known natural hazards.

No doubt the event itself might be inevitable, a consequence of the movement of earth, but as we always say in our disaster risk reduction course, the disaster often is in our response and how we fail to reduce the risks that were already known.

EVACUATION. Residents of Clarin in Bohol come together in an evacuation center. Photo by Franz Lopez/Rappler

The role of science   

This is where science is critical.

While it is true that natural phenomena like earthquakes are out of our hands, what happened in Bohol can actually be sufficiently explained by science. This was made clear by geologists from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) and the UP-National Institute for Geological Sciences (UP-NIGS) in their media appearances following the disaster.

The earthquake was initially believed to be caused by a movement of the East Bohol Fault, but subsequent data analysis of PHIVOLCS suggests that it may have probably originated from a new fault system. It has also been reported that the real epicenter is located between the municipalities of Catigbian and Sagbayan and not in the town of Carmen.

The earthquake was not as strong as the 1990 Luzon earthquake (magnitude 7.8) or the 1976 Moro Gulf earthquake (magnitude 7.9) which generated a large tsunami. Nevertheless, as pointed out by Dr Renato U. Solidum of PHIVOLCS, it was destructive enough to release an energy equivalent to 32 Hiroshima atomic bombs, a massive force that could possibly trigger a tsunami had it originated offshore.

Natural hazards, “un-natural disasters”

The movement of the fault, regardless of its specific origin, is nobody’s fault—it is part of the Earth’s natural geologic processes that take place day in and day out.

If so, can we say then that there is nothing we could have done to avoid the massive destruction in Bohol? 

Definitely no.

While the occurrence of the earthquake is unpredictable and uncontrollable, its impacts are manageable. In fact, not a few disaster practitioners and researchers worldwide contend that there is no such thing as “natural disasters” anymore. Disasters are a product of our development choices and as such, we have the power to reduce, if not eliminate, their harmful impacts through a combination of preparedness, prevention and mitigation interventions.

Disaster preparedness is not enough

Disaster preparedness activities have been undertaken in Bohol as early as 2008. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), then called the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), in cooperation with other government agencies, has already conducted extensive information and education campaigns on the disaster risks (read: not just earthquake) on the island, including the mapping of hazards. This was part of Bohol’s involvement in the Hazards Mapping and Assessment for Effective Community-Based Disaster Risk Management (READY) project, a multi-hazard, multi-agency initiative involving the NDRRMC’s Office of Civil Defense, PHIVOLCS, PAGASA, Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), and National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA).

Aside from national initiatives like the READY project, other disaster preparedness activities have been conducted by municipalities and barangays in the province in compliance with the requirements of the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010.

However, what Bohol’s experience has shown us is that preparedness is not enough. We have to address the root causes of our vulnerability if we want to avoid a repeat of what happened in the province.

This means targeting the very nature of our vulnerability, which can be generally categorized into two, namely, structural and non-structural. Simply put, structural vulnerability refers to the general condition of buildings and infrastructure vis-à-vis ground shaking and other hazards, while non-structural vulnerability denotes the state of the people at a given time to “get wounded” physically, psychologically, socially and financially.

Building code enforcement

To address structural vulnerability requires, of course, structural interventions. For this, we are not lacking in guidance from the National Building Code and its accompanying National Structural Code, which has been upgraded significantly in 2001 and recently in 2010.

According to Cathy Vidar, disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank Office in Manila, engineering experts in the country believe that we already have sufficient ground for effective structural mitigation based on our Building Code alone. It is modelled after one of the highly-touted building and construction regulations in the world, the California Building Standards Code.

Unfortunately, however. the massive destruction of the built environment in Bohol is a glaring testament to our weak enforcement of the Building Code. “The Philippine Building Code was revised to incorporate seismic and wind loads [in a way that buildings would be able to] withstand ground shaking up to Magnitude 8.0,” said Marino Deocariza, urban planner at the Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Center.

As of this writing, the NDRRMC has already reported a total of 2,938 totally damaged and 16,371 partially damaged houses in Bohol and Cebu. The number excludes churches, public buildings, schools, hospitals, public buildings, private establishments, seaports and airports in Bohol, Cebu, Negros Occidental, Iloilo and Leyte. This indicates a gross failure (read: violation) to comply with the provisions of the Building Code.

What is more frightening is that the vulnerability of our structures to earthquakes and other hazards is not only confined to Bohol. Dr Benny Pacheco, a civil engineering professor and director of the Institute of Civil Engineering at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, has estimated that “more than 35 percent of low-rise residential buildings in Metro Manila and in other regions may not be complying with current government standards for construction.”

In Bohol, as elsewhere in the country, non-engineered houses and buildings are still rampant, not to mention structures that were built based on much older construction codes and standards that are now inadequate.

Safe schools

The safety of schools is also of paramount importance. Schoolchildren are particularly vulnerable to earthquakes as awareness-raising campaigns can only do so much in saving them from collapsing schoolhouses.

For example, in 2005, a magnitude-7.6 quake struck northern Pakistan killing about 19,000 children and 900 teachers mostly due to the collapse of 5,578 school buildings. The same happened in 2008, following a magnitude 8.0 earthquake in Sichuan, China where thousands of children were buried alive when more than 7,000 schools caved in due to shoddy construction.

In the town of Loon, a private high school, which used to be a convent attached to the Church of Our Lady of Light, was completely reduced to rubble. Several other schools have reportedly been damaged in the towns of Lila, Maribojoc, Corella and Cortes. There could be more once a complete assessment of the situation is undertaken.

Had the earthquake occurred on a school day during school hours, the number of casualties would have been staggering and unimaginable. It also helped that it did not happen on a Sunday, as Boholanos are typically habitual churchgoers.

Protection of national treasures

The protection of historically significant places of worship is another matter. Some of the churches that were heavily damaged by the earthquake were listed as National Cultural Treasures (NCTs) by the National Museum.

According to Dr Caryn Paredes-Santillan, an architect involved in the restoration of historical sites, NCTs regularly receive financial and technical assistance from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). However, this amount is very little if compared against the gargantuan task of stabilizing and restoring any one church, which could cost upwards of P100 million-P300 million.

She further added that most churches have Detailed Engineering Studies and Conservation Management Plans funded by the NCCA. The problem, as in the case of the Building Code, is in the implementation of these plans. At the time of the earthquake, the Church of San Pedro in Loboc and Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon were being conserved by the National Museum with NCCA funding.

HOPE, DESPAIR. Two siblings say a prayer atop the ruins of the Church of Our Lady of Light. Their father is believed to be among those buried under the rubble. Photo by Bea Cupin/Rappler

The need for a national disaster agency

The Visayas earthquake is once again the best argument for an independent national disaster agency. It has been said before that the Office of Civil Defense, while a competent body, is not the right institutution for disaster risk reduction.

The military should lead in response but it has no comparative advantage for other important mandates of a national disaster agency. The current structure of the NDRRMC, even with the name change, is also not a big improvement over the NDCC, which has clearly proven to be inadequate to deal with our disasters.

Among others, a national disaster agency should have a strong mandate to assist and train local governments on disaster risk reduction and management. National response teams can be brought under its management; an independent agency can also host disaster response training and exercises for disaster first-responders from other departments (e.g., armed forces and police), local governments, and private organizations (e.g., Red Cross). It can be given the authority to manage the national funds and budgets allocated under the law to ensure effective and accountable expenditures. On that accountability front, an independent agency can also be responsible for setting standards of risk reduction that must be met by local strategies, and ensuring compliance.

Lately, it was reported that we now have the maps of all our flood-prone areas. That’s a good development. The challenge now is how government agencies, especially local governments, will use these maps.

If we have an independent disaster agency, then there would be a champion with clout and capacity to push its proper usage. We fear that without such agency and champion, the maps will just be in a shelf or remain in a computer drive. Business as usual will continue. These maps are important not just for preparing for disasters but for reducing them by making tough decisions on land use and settlement, which should have been done a long time ago. (To be concluded)Rappler.com 

A native of Cagayan de Oro, where there is a big Boholano diaspora, Dean La Viña has many personal connections to the island. Through the years, he has also worked on Bohol issues from local governance to fisheries and the management of coastal and marine resources. Lately, he has been organizing international conferences in Bohol to showcase the island’s ecotourism sites and historical legacy to foreign colleagues. Dr Kristoffer Berse is a disaster risk management specialist currently affiliated with the Ateneo School of Government as an adjunct faculty. A true-blue Boholano, he spent part of his high school at the Sacred Heart Academy which was completely reduced to rubble along with the Church of the Nuestra Señora de la Luz in Loon. He lost an ancestral house from the earthquake and still has relatives and friends in Calape who need urgent assistance. They co-teach courses on disaster risk reduction at the Ateneo School of Government. 

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