THE Department of Education (DepEd) said it is prepared to close schools, particularly in urban areas like Metro Manila, with unsound structural stability that may make them vulnerable to earthquakes.

DepEd Undersecretary for Plans and Programs Vilma Labrador said they are still waiting for the final assessment report conducted by structural engineers and experts from the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), which was tasked to conduct inspection of buildings across the country.

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“We are waiting for their final report, and we will listen to whatever their recommendations are since they are the expert in these things,” Labrador said.

In the meantime, the official said DepEd has been strengthening and retro-fitting existing school buildings in the country to ensure that they will be able to withstand strong tremor.

The DepEd, she said, is also prepared to transfer affected students to schools near their localities to ensure that their learning will not be derailed.

Earlier, DepEd National Capital Region Teresita Domalanta assured parents and students in Metro Manila that schools can cope with a Haiti-type earthquake.

“NCR school buildings are built to withstand Intensity 10 earthquakes,” Domalanta said.

Aside from the hardening of schools, the DepEd trained 127 civil engineers to undertake the Quick Response Project to continually asses the structural integrity of schools.

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

The DepEd said not only in Metro Manila were the preparation for a “Big Quake” taking place as it has already constructed “earthquake and typhoon” resistant schools in calamity-prone areas of the country like in the Bicol region where more than two dozen such buildings were set up.

The schools are elevated one meter above the ground, has a ceiling reinforced by 20-millimeter steel bars and equipped with rest rooms, a kitchen, toilets and ample water supply.

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

Last week, DPWH Secretary Victor Domingo said 60 structures had been inspected and a third of these had been placed under "urgent detailed evaluation."

“Of the 60 buildings, 20 had been demolished and replaced, 20 others had been retrofitted, while demolition or retrofitting is underway for the remaining 20,” he said.

The school buildings that reportedly cannot withstand a strong earthquake are the Andres Bonifacio Integrated School in Mandaluyong City; Araullo High School in Manila; Navotas Polytechnic College; and Kalayaan High School main building in Pasay City.

DPWH National Building Code chief Emmanuel Cuntapay said these buildings exhibited cracks on their wall partitions, beams, floor and girders. Evidence of torsion, vertical, and plan irregularities were also discovered during the initial ocular inspection.

The DPWH said the buildings were vulnerable to tremors since most of these were built in the 1990s or earlier. The buildings, it added, had not been designed to withstand an earthquake.

The country’s preparation in the event of a major earthquake is gaining attention following the devastation in Haiti last month.

Authorities said as many as 200,000 people died in the earthquake that brought great destruction to the nation, particularly to Port-au-Prince.

Like Haiti, the country, particularly Metro Manila, is also crisscrossed by major fault lines, one of which West Valley fault line is one of three cutting across the metropolis.

The other two are the Manila Bay and Manila Trench fault lines. The last big earthquake that hit Metro Manila and the rest of central and northern Luzon in July 1990 killed 1,700 people.

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 ear if it will be hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7 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 7 or greater that could destroy some 16,000 buildings and cause 150,000 injuries though he did not predict a date. (AH/Sunnex)