MANILA -- The Education department assured the public Sunday that school buildings in the metro can withstand major earthquakes like the one that devastated a large portion of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince.

Department of Education (DepEd) Metro Manila Chief Teresita Domalanta said the agency is prepared for any calamity and the school buildings in the National Capital Region (NCR), especially the newly built ones, can withstand even an Intensity 10 earthquake.

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Domalanta’s statement came following government’s call for local government officials and the public to prepare for the possibility of a major earthquake hitting the country, as it admitted that current preparations are still inadequate to cope with a major tremor.

The education official, however, said the agency, in coordination with local government units and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), has been "hardening" schools since two years ago after an assessment conducted by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) which identified several schools in Metro Manila as vulnerable to earthquakes and in need of immediate rehabilitation.

Training

The DepEd has also trained 127 civil engineers to undertake the Disaster Quick Response Project to maintain the structural integrity of schools, the education official said.

The training was conducted under the auspices of DPWH, local government units and the Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines (Asep).

DPWH Bureau of Design and Structural Division chief Engineer Wilfredo Lopez said they have assessed more than 2,000 public buildings in the metropolis, including schools and hospitals.

As a result of the DPWH-led assessment, two public schools were ordered closed while others underwent repairs to strengthen their foundation.

The preparation for a "Big Quake" is not only being done in Metro Manila as calamity-prone provinces have also set up "earthquake and typhoon" resistant schools.

In Bicol Region alone, more than two-dozen buildings were constructed. The schools were elevated one meter above the ground and now has a ceiling reinforced by 20-millimeter steel bars and equipped with rest rooms, a kitchen, and ample water supply.

The sturdy structure can accommodate at least 60 people when used as an evacuation center.

Drills

Aside from ensuring the structural integrity of the schools, Domalanta said they are also strengthening earthquake drills to prepare students for any eventuality.

"We regularly conduct earthquake drills to make sure that our teachers and students are prepared. In the national level and here in Metro Manila, we conduct this four times," she said.

Even the DepEd Central Office in Pasig City conducts a twice-a-year quake drills participated by hundreds of its employees, the education official said.

Earlier, the MMDA said it has already trained 4,000 individuals for disaster quick response situations and is targeting to train 10,000 more volunteers from the 17 local government units in the NCR alone.

A joint study by the MMDA, Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) and other government agencies said a lack of preparation in the event of a strong quake could wreak havoc in the metropolis.

A similar report presented last year by a senior United Nations official at the Global Disaster Risk Reduction Conference in Geneva, Switzerland projected devastating impacts on Metro Manila if it will be hit by an earthquake with a magnitude seven or higher.

Arjun Katoh, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, cited a 2004 study conducted by the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiatives (EMI) that Metro Manila could be hit by a tremblor with a magnitude of seven or greater that could destroy some 16,000 buildings and cause 150,000 injuries though he did not predict a date.

Even Renato Solidum Jr., director of the Phivolcs, said lack of preparation in the event of a 7.2 quake could wreak havoc in Metro Manila, adding it would affect around 38 percent of residential buildings, 14 percent of high-rise buildings and 35 percent of public buildings, not to mention the numerous casualties.

The MMDA said that aside from training of rescue and emergency personnel from the local government units, the agency is also training police and military personnel and even college students in disaster search and rescue operations as early as 2004.

It added that while preparations are already in place, strict implementation of laws (Building Code) and continuous government funding will play a key role in minimizing casualties and property damage.

The MMDA has already put in place rescue vans with equipment for search and rescue operation, tools and medicines in high-risk areas in 22 barangays in the cities of Manila, Quezon City, Marikina, and Pasig City.

The vans contain powerful hydraulic tools for cutting and digging through debris, as well as first aid equipment needed for search and rescue operations.

The country's preparation in the event of a major earthquake is gaining attention following the devastation in Haiti last week, where more than 200,000 people died, authorities said. (AH/Sunnex)