Why I did not join the #MMShakeDrill

What is often not emphasized, if not totally missed, during drills is that Drop, Cover, and Hold applies only if one is in a structurally sound building. Otherwise, not only is the drill a waste of resources, it can even be fatal.

For the record, I believe in the heart for service of the people behind the #MMShakeDrill. Their genuine concern for us is undeniable, and their hard work, commendable. I appreciate their intention and effort to promote a culture of preparedness among Metro Manila residents especially for the Big One, the long-anticipated 7.2 magnitude earthquake that will be generated when the West Valley Fault finally moves. And yes, to some extent, I will agree that it has instilled in the consciousness of the citizens the fact that a real threat is just around the corner, and something needs to be done about it.

I am deeply concerned, however, that the drill would only create a false sense of preparedness among some citizens, making them feel ready to survive the Big One, just because they know “what to do” when it finally hits Manila — that is, to Drop, Cover, and Hold — when in fact they are not really ready, and they might not even be able to Drop, Cover, and Hold, as they practiced.

I am afraid that just because we have had the #MMShakeDrill, we would already feel like we are now more safe, and more prepared, when in fact, we are not really.

Here are five indicators which I believe show that we are not yet ready for the Big One, five things which seem to nullify our conduct of drills and similar “preparedness” efforts, five reasons I did not join the #MMShakeDrill.

1. Our office building has not been retrofitted.

The last time I participated in an earthquake drill in the office during which I learned that our building has not been retrofitted (September 28, 2016)

I was in the office last Friday when the #MMShakeDrill signal sounded off. I did not join the drill because the exercise seemed futile to me. I knew it was not preparing us for the Big One. I thought that we might not even be able to apply it during the actual scenario.

My context? The last time I participated in a similar drill, I asked someone from the division in charge of the drill whether our building could withstand a strong earthquake such as the Big One. I was told that several years ago, there had been recommendations, based on the findings of an architectural audit, that our buildings be retrofitted. I asked whether any retrofitting had been done since the audit, and I was told she was not aware of any.

If that was the case, then no amount of dropping, covering, and holding was sufficient to actually save us from the Big One. I told myself then that I would join an earthquake drill again only once the recommended retrofit is completed.

This is what is often not emphasized, if not totally missed, during drills: Drop, Cover, and Hold applies only if one is in a structurally sound building.

In fact, citizens of developed countries are warned against doing Drop, Cover, and Hold, particularly if they are in a country with unengineered construction. According to the Earthquake Country Alliance:

The ONLY exception to the “Drop, Cover and Hold On” rule is if you are in a country with unengineered construction, and if you are on the ground floor of an unreinforced mud-brick (adobe) building, with a heavy ceiling. In that case, you should try to move quickly outside to an open space. This cannot be recommended as a substitute for building earthquake-resistant structures in the first place!

In the case of the Philippines, we do not have many engineered structures. Rappler reported in 2015 that:

The big problem in the Philippines, according to Miriam [Former President of the Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines], is that a big percentage of the houses and structures are non-engineered — they were built without the benefit of engineers and structural codes.

Unless we address infrastructure first, Drop, Cover, and Hold is only a waste of resources. At its worst, the drill might even do more harm than actually save people.

Similar to what the Philippines is doing now, Nepal also prepared its people for strong earthquakes through drills and by educating them to Drop, Cover, and Hold. But the drills did not only fail to save, but unfortunately even harmed, some of those who faithfully Dropped, Covered, and Held. Nepali Engineer reports:

A lot of corpses positioned in ‘Drop Cover Hold’ were found in the rubble after the earthquake. Many believe, a lot of those who died might have survived if they had run out instead of taking cover in the crumbling buildings.

Drills, if treated as a poor substitute to ensuring that our infrastructures can withstand strong earthquakes, may be fatal.

2. A mall in Alabang lies directly over the fault line.

The mall in Alabang that lies over a fault line

Clearly, the Drop, Cover, and Hold drill is not supposed to be for everyone. What can be done on the next #MMShakeDrill is to qualify only which citizens in which areas can participate in the drill. Those that do not comply with building and structure codes and zoning laws should not be allowed to participate in the drill. This way, they will be prompted to truly prepare for the Big One, and definitely, not through drills.

For instance, a certain mall in Alabang is among the infrastructures in the area that lie over the fault line. When the Big One happens, this mall is expected to collapse. That Drop, Cover, and Hold can save its mallgoers is a lie we should be careful not to sell.

When I was still in Community Development work, I learned that the mall’s management sought the help of a disaster preparedness NGO to facilitate an earthquake drill for this mall. The NGO refused to do so for the reasons I have been repeatedly emphasizing in this story.

#MMShakeDrill organizers can do the same. It should be emphasized that Drop, Cover, and Hold is not the general rule for everyone. Unless one is certain that they are in a structurally sound building (that is of course not on top of a fault line), the drill is not for them.

Structurally sound and law-compliant infrastructure should be the priority.

3. A “weak perimeter fence” along Edsa has a signage that asks pedestrians to stay away from it.

A weak perimeter fence somewhere along Edsa has this Warning sign (July 14, 2017)

What if one is in a building that is not strong enough to withstand an earthquake, or in a structure that is located on top of the fault line? What should they do? The answer is also a question: Why are they in that building in the first place? Or for many like me who are forced by circumstances to stay in such buildings, why do such structures exist?

Case in point: If you knew that a weak perimeter fence beside a sidewalk might collapse, the last thing you would offer pedestrians that use the sidewalk is a Warning Sign to tell them to keep away from the fence, isn’t it? It is futile. And it is dangerous, especially if keeping away from the fence means getting off the sidewalk and getting on the road where moving vehicles are.

True preparedness will ensure that no such weak fenses exist in the first place.

Unfortunately, for some reason, we cannot afford to do so just yet.

Until we have rid our city of weak fences, buildings, and houses that might collapse, drills to train citizens to Drop, Cover, and Hold accomplish only as much as this Warning Sign does. False hope. Superficial preparedness.

When it comes to earthquakes, information is only as effective as infrastructure.

4. The Guadalupe Bridge has not been repaired.

Guadalupe Bridge

In June 2016, Rappler reported that:

According to Edison Gonzales, MMDA public relations officer, the Guadalupe Bridge is one of the structures in Metro Manila expected to collapse in a strong earthquake.

The report further adds:

In 2015, the Guadalupe Bridge was among the 6 bridges scheduled to undergo retrofitting by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). Along with Ayala, Lambingan, MacArthur, Quezon, and San Juan bridges, Guadalupe Bridge is due for repair to ensure its structural integrity in case of a devastating earthquake.

I e-mailed MMDA last July 11 to follow-up on the story and ask if these bridges had already undergone repair/ retrofitting and could now withstand a strong earthquake. I was told that:

MMDA has no jurisdiction over the reconstruction of bridge or roads, DPWH is the one liable to do this task.

I am yet to hear from DPWH about this, but based on news reports, it seems that retrofitting has not been done, as authorities still expect the bridge to collapse. A day before the #MMShakeDrill, GMA News Report quoted MMDA Oversight Committee on Public Safety Head BGen. Manny Gonzales saying:

May scenario tayo na Guadalupe Bridge will collapse. So we will simulate the traffic po talaga, walang movement ang trapiko.

During the 2016 #MMShakeDrill, as also reported by Rappler, organizers staged a simulation of the birdge’s collapse that

Included vehicular fire accidents, victims trapped under the fallen billboards and debris from the collapsed MRT line, and people trapped inside their cars while their cars are trapped under rubble and branches… [and] a car being thrown off the bridge during the earthquake.

Of course, this simulation involved volunteers who acted as victims, and even actual rescuers, medics, and firefighters, who demonstrated their disaster response skills, as well as the media, who covered the event.

The idea has always troubled me. We were gathering people on a structure that had been predicted to collapse so that we could promote disater preparendess and help save lives. This sounds ironic to me.

In my opinion, true preparedness will repair the bridge. Simulating a bridge’s collapse, especially on the very bridge that is studied to collapse, to me, is false preparedness. It is putting people’s lives at risk.

Good thing the Big One did not happen during the drill! Or else, we would have harmed the very frontliners whom we were expecting to respond to the situation and rescue the rest of us when the Big One finally happens.

I am not sure if there are plans to conduct similar simulations in the future. If there are, I would suggest that the money budgeted for the simulations of the bridge’s collapse be spent for its repair instead. That might actually save lives.

5. A certain condominium in Katipunan was allowed to be constructed despite the city’s zoning laws that prohibit such high-rise structures.

41-Storey condominium in Katipunan

There is an extensive study in place that provides recommendations on how to proceed in relation to the Big One. We have the best laws and policies that can ensure our safety. However, we know that the strength of a law is not on how well it is written, but on how strictly it is implemented.

This leads me to the fifth reason I did not participate in the #MMShakeDrill.

I did not want to add to the notion that because of the drill, at least something is being done to prepare for the Big One. I do not claim that the government is not doing anything, but I believe that if we seriously understand it is a Big One that we are preparing for, not a small one, we should not settle for a mentality that “at least something is being done.” Only when we prioritize ensuring that we have structurally sound, law-compliant infrastructure can drills such as the #MMShakeDrill truly achieve its purpose.

I believe that our slack implementation of the law is best personified by a high-rise condominium in Katipunan, the only one of its height in the neighborhood, standing tall and proud, seemingly bragging of its grandeur, not in its size per se, but in managing to defy existing laws and to go against all opposition, just to be erected in an area where it is supposed to be prohibited.

I have found only old stories online about the building of the condominium, the most recent of which was published in 2013. Hence, I do not have information on what happened to this case.

I tried to chat with a Support Specialist for the condominium through its website, pretending that I was interested in buying a unit on its top floor. I learned that the condominium has only 41 storeys now, not 42, as reported in 2011. She answered my queries at first. But when I already expressed my concern that in 2011, residents protested that the condominium violates Quezon City’s zoning law, and asked how she could guarantee that it was safe to stay in the condominium and that it would not collapse, she closed the chat.

My proposition is that the true status of our preparedness for the Big One is best assessed through the presence of this condominium in Katipunan and similar structures else where. As long as there are these structures that blatantly violate building codes and zoning laws, we are not truly prepared.

From awareness to true preparedness

I understand that the #MMShakeDrill is scheduled to be conducted regularly until the Big One takes place.

If the drill’s purpose is to make people aware of an impending disaster or to demonstrate how the government intends to respond in case of a future disaster, I would say without doubt that the drill is very much successful.

But if the drill aims to make people more prepared for the Big One, this is where I fear it seems to fail, and even misleads many. Apart from earthquake-resilient structures, the most that drills can accomplish is disaster awareness, but not necessarily disaster preparedness.

I hope we can still have a few more rehearsals to Drop, Cover, and Hold through the #MMShakeDrill before we actually do so in the real setting. And I still hope that I get to participate even in just one drill soon — without any of these five reasons holding me back anymore.

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