Earthquakes


The recent earthquake in Haiti and the more recent one in Chile have again shown how natural phenomena could be catastrophic to man. Earthquakes have been a staple part of this planet since its birth billions of years past. Without earthquakes, the earth as we know it now would not exist. Earthquakes most certainly occurred when the interaction of the Pacific and Asian continental plates pushed the Philippine Islands out from under the sea.

This continuing interaction of the tectonic plates make the Philippines part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, that area around the world’s largest ocean where volcanic and tectonic activity is expectedly frequent and violent. Chile is also in the Ring of Fire. Haiti is also prone to tectonic activity, as it is found where the Atlantic and American plates meet.

Our being in the Ring of Fire makes earthquakes an expected occurrence in the country. For this reason, we should more or less be prepared for a perfectly natural earthquake of perfectly ordinary powerful magnitude that would rattle the puny human structures we have built on these fragile islands.

We should be prepared for a tremor that has the capacity to quite easily kill thousands.

It is in this preparedness that government takes a major role. In fact, it is a role that only government can take. But events throughout the world have shown that no government is able to take on that role.

The damage of earthquakes to human life and property is no doubt magnified by our species’ propensity to flock to urban centers. With the congregation of humans in cities we can expect human suffering to be high when an earthquake shakes these population centers.

Such was the way it was in 1990 when the cities of Cabanatuan, Baguio and Dagupan were affected by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that may now have become dim in our collective memory. At least 1,681 died then.

A lesser earthquake of magnitude 7.2 struck Japan in 1995, affecting the city of Kobe. Japan has been touted to be much better prepared for such an occurrence, yet 5,100 died that time. The damage to property was also considerably more.

The Haiti earthquake (magnitude 7.0) was comparatively weaker than that of Japan, but the damage and human suffering it caused is much more. More than 200,000 are estimated to have perished. The extent of the anguish perhaps is owed to that island’s nation’s inability to put in place measures to mitigate the effects of an earthquake of destructive magnitude.

Fear was expressed in this part of the world, and rightly so, that the same magnitude quake hitting Metro Manila would be catastrophic to its human population and the entire nation. The fear is compounded by the perception that our government has been remiss in preparing for such an occurrence.

The magnitude 8.8 Chile earthquake, though much stronger than the one in Haiti, caused less loss of human life, with “only” 300 deaths. This is because the quake’s center was some 325 kilometers from the country’s capital Santiago. If it hit that city more squarely, we can only surmise what it would have done to its population. More than one-fourth of the nation’s population is concentrated in that city.

While we do not wish it upon ourselves, an earthquake of equal or even stronger magnitude would most certainly hit the Philippines, though we do not know when or where it will occur.

No amount of preparation, no amount of human intervention would make any nation adequately ready for such an occurrence. What we can merely do is to lessen possible effects, and to effectively respond to the aftermath as best we could.

In the end, what these earthquakes teach us is that we are ever at the mercy of natural phenomena, and our efforts at controlling natural forces shall remain ever puny and ineffectual. It is folly.

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