Urban planner urges building audits for disaster preparedness

Philippine Daily Inquirer
By Tessa Salazar

MANILA, Philippines—A quarter of the 2 million structures in urban areas in the country will crumble under a natural disaster such as an earthquake. This grim assessment of principal architect and urban planner Felino A. Palafox Jr. of Palafox Associates was revealed to Inquirer Property. He observed that about 500,000 structures—including residential houses especially in urban poor areas—are vulnerable to the liquefaction phenomenon in the event of a strong earthquake.

Toward safer cities, towns

Inquirer Property has obtained 60 recommendations—more than half of these to address earthquakes—Palafox had sent to the Aquino administration July 7 last year (23 of these recommendations address the problem of flooding). Palafox, who has worked in more than 33 countries, described his recommendations as initial plans and tentative programs toward safer cities, towns and communities. These recommendations include:

Prepare and publish hazard maps for earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruption, tsunami, fire and rising water levels due to climate change and other hazards.

A structural, hydrologic and geologic audit of buildings and infrastructure, particularly those built by the government, like schools, hospitals and bridges.

Learn lessons from countries less prepared for disasters, like Haiti. Learn best practices from advanced countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States and other more developed countries in Europe and North America, and update the building and structural codes.

Palafox also told Inquirer Property that the employees of his office, which occupies the 11th floor of one of the buildings on Ayala Avenue, aside having their mobile phones always at hand, have each a bottle of water, a hammer, a flash light and a whistle within arm’s reach at their workplace. The company also has on standby ropes and stretchers for evacuation. He has also recommended that building owners refrain from using fire exits as storage areas. And as a matter of common sense, he stressed, every household member should know where the keys of the padlocked fire exit grills are.

“If Metro Manila and other cities are to be made less vulnerable to disasters than at present, it is necessary not only to make the buildings safer, earthquake resistant, flood proof and fireproof, but also to improve the roads, open spaces and parks that can prevent the spread of fire, while at the same time raise government’s and citizen’s preparedness for disasters in order to minimize the potential loss and damage to life, limb and property,” he said.

The citizens, national government, provincial, city and local government units, municipalities, barangays and private enterprises must fulfill their responsibilities and join the efforts in creating communities less vulnerable to disasters. Public-private partnerships are also needed.

Palafox has also lamented the “analysis paralysis” congress and the government are visibly suffering from.

Long-term plan

His recommendations for the long term include:

Create disaster-proof cities against earthquakes, promote fireproof and earthquake-resistant measures for urban areas and secure open spaces to check the spread of fire and designate evacuation places.

Develop and strengthen urban facilities which can check the spread of fire occurring after a big earthquake, and create safe and comfortable disaster-proof living zones.

Create individual citizen’s awareness for disaster prevention, thereby eliminating some of the factors leading to disaster, while at the same time uniting citizens’ efforts with those of the administration in building up preparedness for disaster, taking into consideration Metro Manila’s and other cities’ daytime and nighttime population.

Secure open spaces, particularly in urban areas such as parks, as they play important roles in disaster prevention and management.

Create disaster-proof living zones. To prevent fire from spreading following an earthquake, divide urban areas into zones of roughly the size of an elementary or high school planning district, by using firebreaks made up of roads, rivers, creeks and canals as boundaries. Consolidate roads, rivers and parks which make up the firebreaks, as well as promote fireproof measures for areas along firebreaks.

Utilize the barangay system and village homeowners associations in order to consolidate public squares or open spaces and minor roads and to improve the area’s living environment and its capacities to fend off disasters.

Palafox also recommended the enhancement of school education for disaster prevention, and the setting up of a system for addressing disasters at the academic level.

The urban planner also urged the government to clearly map out a 10-year plan of programs and projects directly addressing disaster preparedness and management.

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