Saturday, November 27, 2021

Special Report: Designing for the new normal

Disaster resiliency not just about building stronger structures

NATURAL calamities that hit the Visayas in late 2013 left damage of catastrophic proportions -- lives lost, homes washed away and centuries-old structures reduced to rubble.

It’s been three months since the magnitude 7.2 earthquake on October 15 and Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) on November 8. With the need to feed people already addressed, one question in survivors’ minds remains, begging for an answer: If this is the new normal, what should we do to make sure we survive the next one that comes along?

Disaster resiliency is not just about building stronger structures that can withstand a major earthquake, Yolanda-like winds and rains or more intense natural calamities. (See “What is the New Norm?”)

Architect Ma. Lourdes Onozawa, co-convenor of the Movement for Livable Cebu, defines disaster resiliency as one’s ability to anticipate, minimize and absorb potential stresses or destructive forces through adaptation or resistance; maintain certain basic functions and structures during disastrous events; and recover or “bounce back” after an event.

What is the New Norm?

The basics

There are steps the government and its people must go through before a disaster-resilient and livable community can be attained. (See “Dealing with the New Norm.”)

Onozawa, in a recent talk organized by the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc.-Eduardo Aboitiz Development Studies Center about disaster resiliency, stressed the importance of accepting that the recent natural phenomena that have happened are the “new normal.”

Architect Cris Cyril Abbu, a consultant to the United Nations, said people should understand the impact of climate change on them and how they should adapt.

“Adaptation to climate change is a response that seeks to reduce the vulnerability to climate change effects. Adaptation responses can help build resilient structures,” Abbu said in the same talk.

Dealing with the new norm


The first step to planning how to create disaster-resilient communities is to identify and assess one’s ecosystems to see how one can benefit from them.

“Eco-services are provided by the ecosystem to benefit us. Managing its use softens the impacts of our vulnerable state,” Onozawa said.

For instance, plants (rubber tree, mais mais, boston ferns, umbrella plant) that are excellent for removing chemical toxins in indoor environments can be grown.

Parking lots, concrete pavements and other impervious surfaces cause floods, as these cause very little infiltration to recharge aquifers.

To stem floods, rainwater can be harvested and used for flushing toilets and other purposes. Mangrove forests can be used as buffers.

Garages have to be permeable; uniformly graded stone aggregate should be used, with 40 percent void space for stormwater storage and recharge.

Claus Hemker, consulting architect of Caritas Germany who is now working on the rehabilitation of Guiuan, Eastern Samar, said it is imperative to plan with and not against nature.

“Urban planning and architectural design must respect local culture as well as the genius loci (prevailing character or atmosphere of a place),” he said.


Building a disaster-resilient environment should be a community effort. All three architects underscored the need to tap residents to do their share, whether by simply staying informed, sharing ideas or inviting experts to talk on how to achieve their goal.

Organizing a community capability-building activity and a functional citizens’ disaster response center would also be ideal, so people will know what to do and where to go.

Those planning to build a house must make it a habit to ask their developer or architect for copies of hazard maps.

“Hazard and risk assessment maps are necessary for a comprehensive regional and urban planning, and disaster-resilient design,” Hemker explained.

With cost also a consideration, Onozawa suggested building with what the land has to offer.

“The Ivatan houses in Batanes are built off the stones that are scattered in the coast, and these houses are strong,” she said. “One must examine what is around him, so he can use this for his house. Check the location of the house to see where there needs to be buffering, and consult with an engineer for the strength of the house against strong physical pressures to ensure its safety.”


Residents are advised to have an evacuation room or house, if possible. This should be an elevated, strong structure that must contain food, water and medical supplies good for at least seven days.

Families should also have emergency kits containing important documents in sealed bags, special food and medication for infant, elderly or disabled family members, a first aid kit, torch, baby formula, sturdy gloves, portable radio, waterproof bags, non-perishable food and spare batteries. And they should have a list of emergency numbers to call.

What are the natural hazards?

Sturdy structures

The Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance/Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters International Disaster Database presented by Hemker classifies into five sub-groups the natural disasters that threaten communities worldwide. (See “What are Natural Hazards?)

As of 2009, the sub-groups that affected Asia the most were hydrological, climatological and meteorological.

Hemker said it is equally important to determine a community's underlying risk factors -- poverty, climate change, poor urban governance and missing regulatory framework -- and not focus on just the design and technology of structures.

“Geography + climate change + population growth + urbanization + informal settlements + poverty + poor leadership = risk + poor infrastructure,” he said, stressing that planners should remember that technical solutions are expensive and have limitations.

Abbu said a resilient infrastructure design incorporates climate change-adaptable design elements with sustainable and eco-efficient design elements.

It also considers the different layers of society—historical, religious, social and cultural.

In designing a disaster-resilient structure, multi-functionality should be considered, like building a school that may be converted into an emergency shelter, library or community resource center, Abbu said.


Strict compliance to provisions of the National Building Code must also be observed.

“We don’t need spectacular solutions or avant-garde architecture, but one that is functional, resilient and ready for the new normal,” Hemker stressed.

Onozawa, however, said the building code provides only the minimum standards.

“Only a few people will go beyond the minimum, so it will be wise to raise the minimum standards to ensure survival. The engineering codes will be important as well, and these can be made known to the ordinary people, and not just to the professionals,” she said.

Onozawa said it is not enough to weatherproof one’s house.

“Its surroundings need to be buffered as well, which is why disaster resiliency is a community effort,” she said.

Asked to comment on whether reclamations only put people at risk of storm surges, Onozawa said: “The undercurrents and the forces of the sea will not change. If the storm surges were able to destroy areas on the coast, how much more for those who push their developments seaward?”


In 2008, the German Technical Cooperation, United Nations Development Program Regional Centre in Bangkok and International Strategy for Disaster Reduction released a Handbook on Good Building Design and Construction in the Philippines.

“In an area that is prone to earthquakes and other significant natural hazards, not only principles of design are important, but also principles of construction, since the best designed house which has been well covered and painted may hide serious structural defects in the construction. These defects may lead to serious injury and death, and loss of property when the forces of nature strike the house,” said Robin Willison, a disaster risk reduction consultant and civil engineer who wrote the handbook.

The handbook enumerated principles on design, construction and materials; and a checklist of what homeowners should take note of when constructing a house or building.

No sacrifice

While they see the need to revisit laws pertaining to building construction and design, local engineers also stressed the need to strictly follow what the law provides.

Former Cebu City Engineer Kenneth Carmelita Enriquez suggested that after the Oct. 15 earthquake, building owners hire structural engineers to re-assess the integrity of their structures.

“Do not sacrifice life just so you can save on cost. With the rapid urbanization, we cannot afford to risk lives,” she said.

Utilities, too

Disaster resilience is not just about constructing sturdy buildings and where to build these. It is also ensuring that service provided by utility companies continues despite the damage a calamity may bring.

Structures of power distribution utility Visayan Electric Company Inc. (Veco) are designed to withstand winds of up to 240 kilometers per hour. (The National Structural Code of the Philippines places Visayas under the Zone 2 category, with wind velocity at 200 kph.)

Engineer Val Saludes, Veco vice president-Engineering Group, told Sun.Star Cebu that it has a contingency plan in place in case a strong typhoon or calamity renders it unable to serve its franchise area.

This plan ensures swift restoration of Veco’s affected distribution facilities. The company may also tap the assistance of its sister companies that are in power distribution in other parts of the country.

If the transmission system where Veco gets its power supply is rendered unavailable, Saludes said Veco may tap its embedded generator to supply it with standby power.

Telecommunications giant Smart Communications Inc. said that given the changing wind patterns, it is now coordinating with the National Telecommunications Commission and the state weather bureau to reconfigure its network infrastructure.

Typically, though, Smart over-specifies the strength of the towers it installs, putting up, for example, towers that can withstand winds of up to 250 kph if a particular area, historically, has been getting winds of up to 150 kph.

If a natural disaster renders its service unavailable, Smart uses satellite telephony through the Smart Satellite Services as emergency communications solution for the government, humanitarian responders, and calamity survivors to reconnect with their families.

Satellite phones rely on a network of satellites that are either fixed above the equator or in low orbit anywhere from 500 to 1,000 miles above the earth. Thus, these are rarely affected by violent storms because the main repeaters sending and receiving signals (the satellite spacecraft) are located outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

Smart is the only Philippine operator offering mobile satellite services. A SatSleeve, which transforms an iPhone 5/5S or Samsung Galaxy S3/S4 into a satellite phone, costs P38,500 per unit, inclusive of US$225 initial credit. A weather-proof stand-alone satellite phone is sold at the same price.

Maria Jane Paredes, Smart senior manager for Public Affairs Group, said satellite phones have emerged as reliable communication devices after Yolanda, which isolated a huge part of Eastern Visayas after it struck.

“We are revisiting our business continuity strategy not only from a hardware perspective but also seriously looking at how we can make our employees, particularly the engineers who are deployed in the affected areas, more prepared as well as their families,” she added.

Metropolitan Cebu Water District (MCWD) also relies on standby generator sets so it can serve within 24 hours 60 percent of its consumers in case of power service interruptions.

It also has leak detection equipment to hasten the repair of leaks that will appear during a calamity.

MCWD public affairs manager Charmaine Janis Rodriguez-Kara said the agency has a Disaster Response Plan that is activated through a council before a natural calamity occurs and is implemented during and after a disaster hits its service area.

Key personnel are assigned to different tasks to ensure water services will be restored to 100 percent within 24 hours, she added.

Medellin Dayhagon Elementary School after Typhoon Yolanda
The Dayhagon Elementary School in Medellin town didn’t make it after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) barreled through Cebu’s northern towns. Architect Cris Cyril Abbu, a consultant to the United Nations, suggests that multi-functionality be built into new schools so they could also be converted into safe emergency shelters or community resource centers. (Sun.Star Cebu Photo/Allan Cuizon)


Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama said one lesson learned from the recent disasters is the need to prioritize disaster preparedness consciousness.

He lauded the private sector for its strong participation, saying these groups have made disaster response in the city manageable.

As for the need to clear coastlines of 16 coastal barangays of settlers, Rama said these people eventually have to be relocated.

“It’s not going to be easy, but you just have to start,” he said.

Five E’s

To make headway in disaster-resiliency efforts, stakeholders said what is important is to stick to the 5Es -- education, enactment of policies, enforcement, engineering (design and architecture), and empowerment -- and willingness of people to do their part.

“The heart is the strongest and most intelligent driver towards resiliency. At the end of the day, it is our individual choice to make ourselves and loved ones stay safe and survive. In the Law of Nature, there is nothing right or wrong. There are only consequences,” Onozawa said.

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