A note before reconstruction

I type this feeling a little uneasy, as you would expect after yesterday's events.

I work in the nineteenth floor of a 27-storey building in Ortigas. It's newly built - it just went up two years ago - but considering that there's a major fault line just ten minutes away, I can't help but be scared anyway.

So, yes, after seeing the effects of the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck Central Visayas yesterday morning - of historic churches going down in Bohol, of familiar structures sustaining damage in Cebu, and most notably for me, of two people sandwiched between the pavement and a collapsed wall in the public market in the town of Talisay - you can't help but imagine what would happen if the fault lines running right in the middle of the Philippines' most important city finally snaps.

Say, I could crawl under my desk, but is it ample protection for when eight floors' worth of weight comes crashing down on me?

Two years ago the MMDA, citing its own research, stated that if an earthquake of a similar magnitude struck Metro Manila, 38,000 will die in the first hour alone, and the region will struggle to deal with the casualties. You could call it a doomsday disaster akin to a Hollywood popcorn thriller; 20% of the region will be wiped out, the dead will have to be buried in mass graves, 1.2 million will be left homeless - it sounds scary, but if you think about it, what else would you expect from a city that put its posts on shaky ground?

What can be done? Little, if you look at it one way. Government agencies can identify high-risk places, whether of flood or of quake damage, but that hasn't stopped people from living there; otherwise I wouldn't be working in Ortigas, and there would be grass where Valle Verde is at the moment. We wouldn't worry about rivers overflowing and consuming homes. But then again, it'd be difficult to convince these people to move - just think of the people in, say, ParaƱaque, flooded after the monsoon rains a month back, still staying put because they can't be arsed to.

You'd wonder why Metro Manila was allowed to grow haphazardly in the past century - why the traffic is unbearable, why the green spaces are all closed, why things go up where they shouldn't - and then you realize that the Americans did have a plan for Manila when they took over. Daniel Burnham sketched up a plan in 1905 - setting up a basic grid transport system with provisions for many parks, among others - but the only thing that was implemented is what we now call Roxas Boulevard. Quezon City also had a plan when it was founded in the 1940s, but it wasn't stuck to as decades rolled by. Now, Metro Manila is, frankly speaking, a mess, and every solution imposed on it - for traffic, for flood control, for garbage disposal, for everything, really - makes this city a coffin.

"How exactly do you deal with a problem like Manila?" is a question best answered with another question: "how exactly did we get here?" And the easiest, most obvious, most painful answer is simple: nobody gave a damn about this city. Nobody thought of every possibility when they set up the posts. Nobody made a plan when such possibilities came up. Everybody took every opportunity. Everything went up, up, up. See a plot of land, put a mall in it. See a riverside, put a factory. Squeeze some homes in between.

Do I really need to enumerate all of this? Manila is what it is right now because everybody wants everything for themselves, and no amount of cleaning up - whether it's on the streets or on the fabled halls of government - can undo the damage that's already been done, or is brewing deep inside, waiting to snap at any moment.

Honestly, I don't mean to drag that immortal issue of corruption into this. When I think of how poorly-planned Manila is, I tend to shrug and say, "well, corruption is a given." But while watching footage from Bohol and Cebu - of the places I passed by in business trips, of the churches I visited on holiday - my mind went towards the idea of reconstruction. And it has to happen. The NCCA will begin inspecting landmark churches in Cebu and Bohol to map out a plan for restoring them to its former glory, something that has been done before, if you look at the Barasoain Church and the Aguinaldo Shrine.

Inevitably I went further, thinking of the roads that have to be rebuilt, of the markets and schools and hospitals and transport areas and other public facilities. Say that Central Visayas got lucky, that the epicenter was in a relatively sparsely-populated island and the quake struck on a holiday, but there still is a lot of reconstruction to do. Reconstruction means business opportunities, which means people getting desperate for a slice of the pie, which means money changing hands for favors, which means substandard output... you get the idea.

But reconstruction is a chance to start anew, and while the damage isn't as widespread as the pictures you see suggest, there's still a good opportunity to get more things, if not everything, right this time. And it won't happen if people do transactions under tables for it. So, to the citizens of Cebu and Bohol, be grateful that you have an opportunity to make the places you live in work better for you, but stay vigilant, because a few opportunists - whether business, political, whatever - can take it away from you.

As for us here in Manila, we'll just brace ourselves for the inevitable big one. The 200-year quake cycle the experts keep on citing is long done. Any time now...

And your responses...

Now I'm scared. Let's move to New Zealand or somewhere.

Blogger Rainy Martini10/17/2013     

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