By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

ALL the electric and mobile connections are down while the tension remains high. Everywhere you look is chaos: buildings are now rubble, the people are in a panic, and dead bodies pile up. These are not imagined scenarios from films like World War Z, Train to Busan, or The Day After Tomorrow. These could be Metro Manila when The Big One happens — the 7.2-magnitude earthquake which is expected to hit the metropolis at any time in our lifetime. According to an Asia News Network article, experts imagine The Big One as a grim event: People will fall to the ground as the telephone and power poles sway intensely. Not far away are booming sounds of breaking glasses, and screams. “In front of you, the village road is heaving, as if you are riding waves. The strong ground shaking goes on for 50 seconds. It is the longest 50 seconds of your life.”

THE DAMAGED structure of the Basilica of the Holy Child in Cebu City after a major 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the region on Oct. 15, 2013. — AFP

The question is: What will become of the city, especially tangible treasures like our churches, schools, and museums when the Big One hits?

After all, it is a rare church in the country whose National Historical Marker does note the number of times it was rebuilt after earthquakes. The Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, Manila, for example, was destroyed and rebuilt numerous time since it was consecrated in 1581. It was destroyed or seriously damaged by earthquakes four times in its history (1600, 1645, 1863, 1880). The latest iteration is the 8th on the site, built in 1958 after it was reduced to rubble in the bombing of Manila during World War II. It was retrofitted to withstand earthquakes and earth subsidence in 2012-2014.

In what can be considered a portent of things to come, 10 heritage churches in Bohol were seriously damaged or completely destroyed when the province, Cebu and other parts of the Visayas and Mindanao were hit by a 7.2-magnitude quake on Oct. 15, 2013.

More recently, Zamboanga, Leyte, Batangas, and Metro Manila have been experiencing earthquakes, aftershocks, and even a tsunami alert over the past few months. Batangas, for instance, experienced a series of earthquakes in April, with a 5.6 magnitude quake as the strongest. According to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology what the province had experienced was an “earthquake swarm” or outbreaks of earthquakes in a specific area in a short span of time because of a fault movement.

Fay Virrey was on camera when an earthquake hit on April 8. A reporter from ABS-CBN Batangas, she recounted on her blog the experience of live reporting while tremors were happening simultaneously. She was on camera reporting about the influx of passengers at Batangas port area in time for the Lenten season, when the 5.6-magnitude earthquake shook the earth.

“While I was reading the last few sentences of my update, I felt the ground shaking. I tried to ignore it because I thought a big truck was behind me. But I started to hear people screaming and the ground was still shaking stronger,” she said. “I did not know what to do. But I had to keep myself together. No one else would do that for me,” she said, adding that it was the longest 15 minutes of her life. Her loved ones were calling as she was live on TV so she had to ignore the calls. “I thought I was going to die then and everything will be well-documented. I was shocked, helpless, and desperate to know what just happened. When I heard I was already off air, I sat on a chair near our spot and started to absorb everything that happened right in front of me,” she said.

Buildings throughout the province were damaged by the series of earthquakes. One was the centuries-old Basilica of St. Martin of Tours in Taal — said to be the largest church in Asia with a length of 96 meters and width of 45 meters — whose facade was damaged. If the Batangas incident was a primer to the Big One, how ready are Metro Manila’s tangible treasures?

HERITAGE DESTROYED: When a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit the Visayas and Mindanao on Oct. 15, 2013, heritage structures in the region suffered major damage. A similar scenario may happen in Metro Manila with The Big One, a 7.2-magnitude quake which is due to hit the metropolis. Among the structures affected by the 2013 earthquake were historic churches in the province of Bohol including the Dauis Church in Dauis town which was badly damaged. — AFP

“At this point, we cannot really say how ready are our heritage churches and other structures once an earthquake hits Metro Manila,” said Carmen Bettina Bulaong, executive director of Escuella Taller.

A vocational school that teaches skills and disciplines in the heritage conservation field, Escuella Taller has training programs for masonry, metal work, carpentry, and wood work, while also offering heritage conservation services. It started in 2009 and currently has restoration projects with the Malate Church and Sta. Ana Church, both in Manila, and San Pablo Cathedral in Laguna.

Ms. Bulaong said a heritage site’s power to withstand the Big One depends on its state of preservation, location and soil characteristics, the way it was originally constructed and the materials used during its first construction versus recent interventions, including renovations, alterations, and additions.

“It must be understood that many of our old buildings were built to withstand natural hazards as these buildings practices were learned by our early builders through trial and error and by learning from their experiences during disasters,” she told BusinessWorld.

Buildings are vulnerable to damage if they are not properly maintained and respected, she said.

“If a modern concrete structure was to be built adjacent to it, or on top of it, the movement would be different from each other because they are different, causing a heterogeneous reaction, and therefore, destruction of one or both,” she said.

To decrease damage to a site, “its original fabric should be respected by studying closely how modern interventions can affect an old building in terms of structural integrity and compatibility of materials,” she said.

One of the city’s valued possessions, San Sebastian Church — the only steel church in the country — was “overbuilt” with 132 columns which will be able to withstand the Big One. Its engineers said that a single column can carry a 10-storey building, but its restoration team does not want to rely on this fact. After all, the old church has more than 300 leaks which are undermining its strength.

San Sebastian Church is considered lucky because it is currently undergoing proper restoration. (READ: Repairing San Sebastian from the Inside Out <>)

The National Museum, the repository of our heritage treasures, is working on its mitigation plans for natural disasters including earthquakes. According to Angel P. Bautista, the acting assistant director of the National Museum’s cultural properties regulation division, the Museum, including its satellite branches nationwide, is working on the publication of a manual on mitigation and guideline for emergency response plans. The National Museum, through its Emergency Preparedness Committee (EPC), has already prepared floor plans and exit plans for two of the three buildings in its Luneta Park complex, the Fine Arts building (the Old Senate Building) and the Anthropology building (the Old Finance Building). There are an ongoing meetings for mitigation.

But not every heritage structure in the country is receiving the same attention or preparation.

THE RUINS of the 180-year-old Our Lady of Light Church in Bohol. — AFP

The country is home to more than 40 heritage churches, said Armita Rufino, head of the Filipino Heritage Festival Inc., an organization that aims to raise awareness among Filipinos of the existence of man-made as well as natural landmarks and the need to cherish and preserve them.

She told BusinessWorld at the sidelines of an event held at the National Commission on Culture and the Arts office that, as far as she is concerned, “wala naman… hindi madadaanan ang mga heritage sites ng Big One (heritage structures will not survive the Big One).” Still, she acknowledges the need for early preparation and restoration. But the problems are money and materials, she said.

“They need funding,” she said of the heritage structures. “It takes a lot to get repairing because you cannot just use any material, you have to use the same materials — if you can find them. The government is trying to do what it can do, but sadly it is not the priority.

“But first of all, it takes time to study it. The structural study costs millions just to study the place if it can withstand whatever intensity [of earthquake]. And how many heritage churches do we have in the country? And don’t forget about the shrines and other churches,” she said.

The organization does church tours but only to raise people’s awareness and not to help each church in the country financially.

Magdadasal na tayong lahat na ‘wag na mangyari ‘yun, na lumihis na lang siya (Big One),” she said. (Let us just pray that it will not happen, that The Big One will pass us by.)

Can prayers answer everything?