I know “lucky” is not a word used with a casualty count of 40 — and counting. That figure, from 302nd Brigade chief, Col. Francisco Zosimo Patrimonio Jr. does not yet include La Libertad, another town near the epicenter of today’s Negros Oriental quake.
So far, the hardest hit area is Guihulngan City, a laidback community with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. But that’s because the quake, which measured 6.9 in Negros Oriental, damaged roads and bridges leading to La Libertad. Patrimonio said only Navy boats can access that town. They weren’t able to send that many rescue teams by later afternoon. As night fell, some Bayan Patrollers were reporting the start of heavy rains there.
It’s bad. There are incessant aftershocks. Phivolcs says these could continue for a week or more. Because big quakes leave the surrounding plates unstable, some aftershocks can be strong.
With La Niña bringing in a cold front — and rain — there will be short-term misery. Unlike incidents of floods, where schools and churches on higher ground open their gates and doors to evacuees, one doesn’t quite know where to go for shelter in Negros Oriental. After all, everybody is scrutinizing homes and buildings for cracks. Aftershocks could also further weaken structures that already sustained earlier damage.
As bad as the situation seems now, however, it could have been worse.
Five beach cottages where swept away by higher-than-usual sea levels in La Libertad. Some coastal homes experienced flooding. But while there was a Tsunami Alert 2, the location of the quake spared the province from greater devastation.
The towns near the epicenter face the narrow Tañon Strait that separates the island from nearby Cebu. It just takes an hour, sometimes less depending on the crossing, to cross that body of water. There isn’t much volume or space for the deadly tsunami build-up. That’s why NDRRMC’s Benito Ramos said what happened was just a minor rise in sea levels — though one preceded by some receding of water, which frightened locals.
Ramos also mentioned Siaton town — which is actually on the other side of Dumaguete City, going towards southern Negros Occidental. Now, had a strong quake occurred off Siaton or Bayawan and Sta Catalina towns in Negros Oriental, or the most southernmost area on the Occidental side (Hinobaan), the outcome would have been very different.
These areas face the Sulu Sea and there’s a huge empty space between that part of Negros — and Sandakan, in East Malaysia!
The Sulu Sea boasts some of the world’s deepest trenches. which could only allow water to gain more force. Wiki states:
“Tectonic earthquakes are a particular kind of earthquake that are associated with the Earth’s crustal deformation; when these earthquakes occur beneath the sea, the water above the deformed area is displaced from its equilibrium position. More specifically, a tsunami can be generated when thrust faults associated with convergent or destructive plate boundaries move abruptly, resulting in water displacement, owing to the vertical component of movement involved. Movement on normal faults will also cause displacement of the seabed, but the size of the largest of such events is normally too small to give rise to a significant tsunami.”
As the Encyclopædia Britannica points out, the 260,000-sq km sea “fills a downfaulted block, in some places almost 18,400 feet (5,600 meters) deep, the edges of which are seen in the bordering islands.” The lush coral atolls of the Cagayan Islands, the Tubbataha Reefs actually represent “a fracture line that bisects the sea from northeast to southwest”.
Of course, scientists will tell us that not all strong quakes cause deadly tsunamis. There are many factors involve. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration notes:
“Predicting when and where the next tsunami will strike is currently impossible. Once the tsunami is generated, forecasting tsunami arrival and impact is possible through modeling and measurement technologies.” (boldface mine)
There is something about the primal force of water that sends man scurrying more than, say, upheavals on land. (And even on land, as we in this country know too well, the greatest devastation is almost always also connected with water.) In the aftermath of the Aceh quake of December 26, 2004, “tsunami killed about 130,000 people close to the earthquake and about 58,000 people on distant shores. ” The Japan quake last year did not kill people, but the tsunami it generated destroyed a nuclear plant and killed close to 16,000 people.
Nobody, contrary to all those tweets and Facebook posts, can really forecast earthquakes. Humans are lucky, however, that advanced and cost-effective technology is available to allow tsunami alerts. Whether the warning comes fast enough, however, is another story.
Forty dead and counting is bad news from any angle. The cosmic roll of dice, however, could have made for a truly nightmarish situation.