Earthshaking phenomena

It knows no political boundaries nor does it respect territorial integrity, and it can strike anytime. Such is the nature of earthquakes like the 7.2 tremor that hit Bohol, Cebu, and other areas in Central Visayas a week ago. That it struck on a holiday when there were no classes saved the lives of Bohol schoolchildren who often gather during break time in churches near their parish-based schools.

That it did not hit on a Sunday when the thousands attending Holy Mass could have perished as centuries-old churches crumbled shows how merciful God is to the deeply religious Boholanos. That the statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary remained intact amidst church ruins in the towns of Maribojoc and Loon can also be seen as signs of divine Intervention.

Earthquakes have struck terror throughout the centuries and can overwhelm even the most rational of beings faced with a grim reminder of their mortality and their utter helplessness and seeming insignificance amid the spectrum of forces on our dynamic planet.

Among the strongest ones to hit in modern times are the 9.5-magnitude earthquake that struck offshore of Chile in 1960, leaving thousands dead and the 9.1-magnitude quake that killed about 230,000 in Indonesia in December of 2004. The 9.0-magnitude quake that hit Japan about three years ago and caused a massive tsunami could also be counted among the strongest, aside from the one that devastated Kobe, Japan, years ago when about 5,000 people perished.

In the Philippines, quite memorable is the 1990 7.8-magnitude Luzon earthquake that caused massive destruction to property and loss of lives particularly in Baguio, Dagupan, and Cabanatuan where scores of schoolchildren died as their school collapsed. The fall of Ruby Tower in Manila crushed to death about 270 residents at the height of a 7.3-magnitude tremor in 1968, and the 1976 7.9-magnitude quake at the Moro Gulf caused a nine-meter-high tsunami that killed about 6,000 people.

The list of devastating earthquakes in the country goes farther back, even more than a century ago when the frequent destruction of the San Sebastian Church in Manila prompted the construction of its all-steel edifice in 1891—the only church of its kind in the world, with materials prefabricated and shipped from Belgium—that now stands as an enduring testament to the human spirit’s grim determination to put up with, if not conquer, the destructive power of one of the most violent forces of nature.

Director Renato Solidum of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, our country’s leading authority on earthquakes, once explained to followers of my Teleradyo program Sagot Ko ‘Yan (DZMM, 8 to 9 am every Sunday) that tremors originate from movement of gigantic boulders forming the earth’s crust, located deep beneath the land surface or seabed, that either push, pull, or break from each other as a consequence of the tremendous heat endlessly radiating from the core of the earth.

The violent collision or breakage of such rocks underneath, some of which are called tectonic plates, reverberates towards the earth surface and forcefully moves faults or defects in land formation, below or on the surface, causing the ground to shake vertically or horizontally, Director Solidum said. He added that the past powerful earthquakes from the movements of continental tectonic plates caused India to bump against other areas in Asia that resulted in the formation of the mountain ranges of the Himalayas.

Among the widely known earthquake faults in our country are the Philippine Fault zone that stretches from the Ilocos region thru Central Luzon to Eastern Visayas all the way to Mindanao, the West Valley Fault that snakes from eastern side of Metro Manila or west of Marikina through Pasig all the way to Laguna, the Lubang Fault, and the Manila Trench in the West Philippine Sea.

Unlike storms that can be forecast, or volcanic eruptions that can be fairly predicted when warning signs at the crater or around the volcano manifest an impending big burst, earthquakes strike with no warning whatsoever. Despite years of extensive research, the world’s leading scientists are still unable to predict the exact occurrence of an earthquake, which is termed by geologists as a “sudden onset event.”

And just like the biblical second coming of the Lord, an earthquake strikes like a thief in the night. Stopping it isn’t humanly possible, but preparedness is, and the adage that “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” is appropriate in possibly preventing extensive damage or loss of lives. Strict adherence to the National Building Code must ensure that structural design and building materials can withstand strong tremors.

Those caught inside buildings while the earth shakes must seek refuge under strong tables or near columns and beams. Those outside must stay in open areas and keep away from structures from which glass and debris might fall, and from slopes prone to landslides. Earthquake response drills must be conducted regularly and local government units must ensure that emergency rescue measures can be mobilized at a moment’s notice and evacuation centers would be available and immediately known to constituents.

Being proactive in expecting the Big One is infinitely better than being reactive, which may just be too late when disaster finally strikes. And, because each one of us is truly significant in the eyes of our Creator, constantly imploring protection from our ever-loving God who created our planet with all of nature’s forces within will help us deal with the inevitable.