Government News Analysis

Shock from the Ring

Late on Friday night, residents of Surigao City, the provincial capital of Surigao del Norte, nestling at the northeastern edge of Mindanao in the southern Philippines – a coastal city of 154,137 people overlooking the swift currents of the Philippine Sea – woke in panic and knew exactly where they were.

As a 6.7 magnitude, maximum Intensity VII earthquake shook and broke their homes, as people snatched what they could and headed for open ground, the reality of their location came home to them. They were living on the Ring of Fire – the horseshoe of quakes and volcanoes; nature’s most turbulent time bomb. This was the biggest quake to hit Surigao in living memory – the last one was back in the 1800s – but the residents of this small city have always known that such an event was possible.

The one on Friday night, came from eight miles north west of the city. According to the Philippine Institute of Volcanolgy and Seismology the epicentre lay just 6.8 miles deep in the ocean floor. It was triggered by a tectonic movement along one of the fault lines that stretch like spaghetti around the horseshoe.

The inevitable aftershocks – up to 100 of them – followed as the quake telephoned tremors through to the Eastern and Central Visayas. Thankfully, according to the US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration which monitors the Pacific region, there was no tsunami threat. But given the strength of the quake, it could be anywhere between three and six months before movement of the fault settles.

Lamentably, there were casualties with six reported killed and 120-plus injured; 15 of them seriously. Damage to homes and other property was also widespread – at least 28 barangays have been affected – and the repeated aftershocks could add to that. The depth of damage prompted the City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council to place Surigao City under a State of Calamity.

But if the quake itself had wrenched the city’s residents from their sleep, the government wasn’t caught napping. Disaster response was swift; it had already pre-planned for such an event. School buildings were opened up to accommodate families that had fled their homes; the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the lead agency for disaster relief, though its local units assessed immediate needs to be drawn from the DSWD’s food and resources stockpiles – resources backed by a PHP1.6 billion standby facility.

Some 900 family food packs – from a store of 109,500; PHP42.2 worth – were made immediately available by the city’s DSWD’s field office. Meanwhile, Philippine Coast Guard sent in supplies of drinking water from Cebu, as 150 Coast Guard personnel were deployed to assist with logistics and search-and-rescue operations.

By Saturday morning, Social Welfare Secretary, Judy Taguiwalo, had convened an emergency meeting of the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and associated agencies to map out strategies for handling the quake’s aftermath and coordinate the large response effort.

Staff from the DSWD’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Response Operations Office were dispatched to compile damage assessment data; by Saturday afternoon 500 homes had been identified as unsafe. These surveys remain ongoing at the time of writing. Further checks are being conducted by the Office of Civil Defence.

Infrastructural damage was discovered at the city airport which was temporarily closed while Civil Aviation Authority engineers inspected cracks to the runway, the control tower and the terminal building. The Port of Lipata was also closed following concern over the stability of an access road which serves the port. By Saturday lunchtime, Transport Secretary, Arthur Tugarde, was in Surigao to see for himself the extent of the infrastructure damage and offer his department’s assistance. Also on site, to coordinate communications, was Kingay Tandan, Chief of Staff and Undersecretary of the Presidential Communications Operation Office.

Elsewhere, the quake left its calling card. Electricity and water services were paralysed and while the power could be restored as soon as today, it might take another three days before the water comes back. The city’s landmark Gaisano Capital Mall in Barangay Luna, a two-level shopping complex opened just five years ago, was struck; a bridge collapsed and two more were damaged in other districts of Surigao.

It was a robust and well-planned response to a natural event which – unlike typhoons and tropical storms that can be mapped for days ahead – gives little warning. And for those caught up in it, it was terrifying. Although many located to he schools for shelter, some chose to stay outside in open areas – fields and parking lots where they spent the night with the few belongings they could gather before escaping their homes. At the local hospital – deluged by walking wounded with injuries sustained from falling masonry and other objects – bed-ridden patients were brought outside until the aftershocks subsided.

The deadliest earthquake to hit the Philippines in recent times, was on 16 August 1976. That one was also in the Mindanao region, in the Moro Gulf, 400 kilometres southwest of where Friday night’s quake struck. But this was much bigger; it was a magnitude 7.9 and it was devastating. It killed 4,791 people, left a further 2,288 missing and injured 9,928 more.

The next biggest occurred on 16 July 1990 inland on the northern island of Luzon. This was a magnitude 7.8 which send a ground crack 125 kilometres long from Dingalan in Aurora province to Cuyapo in Nueva Ecija. The death toll from that was put at 1,666 with 1,000 missing and more than 3,000 injured. The financial cost was slated as PHP10 billion.

In those two quakes and a further nine to hit the Philippines since then, including this latest one in Surigao, more that 8,250 people have lost their lives and 3,358 more have been declared as missing.

The Ring of Fire – a 40,000 kilometre arch which passes straight through the Philippines – is home to more than three quarters of the world’s active volcanoes. And in the last 11,700 years, 22 of the 25 largest volcanic eruptions took place there. But earthquakes from this zone have an even more impressive statistic: of all the quakes across the Earth, 90% are born in the Ring of Fire and 81% of the largest come from there also.

The Volatilian™ extends its sympathy to the families of those who lost their lives and wishes all those injured a speedy recovery. We hope, too, that the city and its residents will quickly recoup from the damage which this earthquake wrought on them.

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