Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tectonic Blues

The recent magnitude 6.9 earthquake that hit Negros and Cebu islands in the Visayas and which caused several dozen deaths and extensive infrastructure damage has forced many people here in Lianga to rethink and reevaluate their community's vulnerability to a calamity of a similar nature happening here.

Lianga, in living memory, has not been the victim of a major earthquake or any of its attendant destructive effects like tsunamis and landslides.  Yet it is no stranger to smaller earth tremors and nary does a month go by here without at least one or two noticeable quakes being felt by the local population.  In the latter part of last year, a series of quakes, one of them measuring at least a magnitude 5, did shake up much of the province of Surigao del Sur and the Caraga region.  No major damage was, however, reported.

In the two decades I have resided in Lianga, I have personally experienced more than a couple of strong tremors at one time or the other.  Most involve just a sudden, unexpected shaking of the ground lasting a few seconds  or more.  A few were really strong quakes which rattled walls or toppled books and other knickknacks on shelves especially on the second floor of the house.  One or two of these, I could clearly recall, were preceded by a loud rushing, screeching sound like a runaway train locomotive passing by.

Lianga and its province of Surigao del Sur lies just to the east of the Surigao fault line which traverses much of the boundary between the Agusan and Surigao provinces.  This fault line is on the southern end of the extensive and interrelated Philippine fault system which is under great stress (according to the theory of plate tectonics) from being sandwiched between the Eusasian plate on the west and the Philippine sea plate on the east.  To the west of the town and extending diagonally south is even another minor fault line, the Lianga fault, which passes just north of the town of Prosperidad in Agusan del Norte.

So for this part of the country to be prone to the effects of regular tectonic activity is proven scientific fact but whether it is due, in the near future, to experience a big seismic event like the one that recently struck the Visayas is beyond even the capability of modern science to accurately predict.  What is sure is that the occurrence of such a calamity here would result in the massive loss of lives and catastrophic infrastructure damage in view of the special vulnerabilities of the Lianga area to the deadly effects of a really significantly strong earthquake.

Much of the town residential houses are old, nestled close to each other and made of light and flammable wooden materials.  This means that a really strong tremor will flatten most of them and any fires started in the aftermath of such an event can quickly flare up and raze through much of the town. The town has a totally inadequate firefighting force composed of just a couple of men and a small and decrepit firetruck which would quickly be overwhelmed by such a widespread disaster.

The town, like most of all the other coastal communities in the area, is connected by a single highway and road network that snakes through unstable, hilly terrain and crosses dozens of bridges.  This means that a strong earthquake capable of causing massive landslides and collapsing bridges could easily isolate and render it and its sister towns inaccessible to emergency aid and rescue teams coming from outside the disaster area.

In the case of a tsunami event, Lianga and the other communities in the coast would be especially vulnerable.  As a young man in the mid-1980's, I saw with my own eyes how a freak storm wave just few meters high swept through the bay beyond the town, surged up the town's protective concrete dikes and covered the whole of the reclaimed land behind the the old marketplace with a meter high carpet of swiftly rampaging waters.  There were no casualties reported them but the old market building did sustain damage.

A similar wave later struck the backyard of our house and easily smashed to bits a steel reinforced concrete wall my father had built to protect the family home from storm waves.  One can just imagine what a tsunami approaching ten meters in height could do to a coastal town like Lianga where most residents live in houses located near or on the very shoreline itself.

A double whammy of a strong earthquake and an ensuing tsunami event would be for Lianga like the ultimate disaster, a catastrophe approaching Judgement Day or the end of the world itself.  Yet its local government remains totally unprepared for such a disaster.  There are no existing contingency plans for such an catastrophic event and even the regional office of the Department of the Interior and Local Government in Butuan City has admitted in a recent news report that up to this time all local government units of the municipalities along the Surigao coastline have yet to come up with such plans.

I have been told, in fact, that there is a small religious cult which has a small commune on the outskirts of Lianga whose members believe that in the very near future, a huge underwater volcano located just beyond the blue expanse of the Lianga Bay will suddenly come alive and cause a cataclysm that will destroy all of the town and many of its surrounding municpalities.  The members are said to speak of fire and ash raining from the sky, great earthquakes that will level everything in sight and gigantic ocean waves that will sweep over houses and bury entire towns under water.

One can sneer and laugh all day long at such apocalyptic visions and prophesies coming from people whose religious views we consider ridiculous or whose very sanity and mental balance we may even question.  But it is clear that a seismic event such as the one that recently struck parts of the Visayas can happen in the Lianga area at any time.  If and when if it does, heaven forbid, crazy prophesies or premonitions notwithstanding, no amount of I-tell-you-so's can erase the fact that we have, in fact, been clearly warned and forewarned and chose not to pay heed at all.

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