Theology and Natural Disasters

Filipinos stand by a damaged Basilica Del Sto Nino in Cebu, central Philippines Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake collapsed buildings, cracked roads and toppled the bell tower of the Philippines' oldest church Tuesday morning, killing at least 20 people across the central region. (AP Photo/Chester Baldicantos)
Filipinos stand by a damaged Basilica Del Sto Nino in Cebu, central Philippines Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake collapsed buildings, cracked roads and toppled the bell tower of the Philippines’ oldest church Tuesday morning, killing at least 20 people across the central region. (AP Photo/Chester Baldicantos)

Am I the only one who doesn’t believe there’s a direct correlation between religion and geology?  Because that seems to be the case.

After a devastating, magnitude 7.2 earthquake rocked the Central Visayas region this week the Filipino people, as always, turned to the most irrelevant angle of the story to scrutinize. Despite the fact that the earthquake is the strongest the country experienced in recent years, or that the death toll was likely to exceed 100 casualties, the focus was on the damage done to churches.

Apparently, these Filipinos find it intriguing why the earthquake destroyed what they perceived to be houses of God – saying that as if earthquakes could choose where and when they want to occur. Speculations were plenty from all religious groups: Christians were saying it was because of the declining religiosity of their adherents, Muslims were saying it was a testament that Christianity isn’t “the way” after all and atheists chimed in their usual rhetoric: ‘where’s your God now?’

It’s amusing, and slightly frustrating, how our society ties everything up with belief so quickly. Despite a sound knowledge of science, particularly about plate tectonics and geology earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and the like are still somewhat linked to a person’s piety. Even people who negate the existence of any deity, the atheists, funnily jump the ‘god bandwagon’ as soon as pictures of pulverized churches emerged online almost like a religious person.

It is, on the other hand, annoying how people would even blame God for the destruction of the earthquake. There are two reasons why this is not the work of God: first, the Philippines is in the Pacific Ring of Fire and is therefore prone to earthquakes and second, the country has among the poorest safety measures for earthquakes in place. In other words, God or any supernatural entity did not have a hand in these disasters, they did not need to, it was bound to happen anyway.

Earthquakes are caused by tectonic plate movements underneath the Earth’s surface. Our planet consists of several of these plates which shift towards different directions. The ends of these plates, called plate boundaries converge with each other in an area called a fault line, literally grinding against each other. This area is where earthquakes usually come from. These plate boundaries however have rough edges and therefore there is a tendency for them to get stuck while movement. However, even if they do the plates continue their movement therefore the stuck-up in the fault line gradually stores energy. When the plates have moved far enough to overcome the jammed area, the stored energy is released as seismic waves which is similar to ripples in a pond when you throw a pebble in it. These waves, rattle the surface of the earth in what we call an earthquake.

These earthquakes can occur at any time, there is currently no available device which can warn us of an incoming earthquake. There is no technology whatsoever which can break jams in the fault line before it brews into a quake. The only measure we can employ against the risk of earthquakes is by preparing the surface for the damage it can do. This means using quality materials in any future buildings being built and even evaluating current structures for vulnerability – those with high risks of damage should be retrofitted or demolished.

This is exactly what happened with the collapsed churches in Bohol and Cebu. These were centuries-old structures made of primitive materials such as limestone, coral stones, bamboo and even egg whites. It will be absolutely surprising if those churches would survive an earthquake of that magnitude, regardless what percentage of the Philippine population flocked to church each week.

Let’s look back to our history, in 1990 a similar disaster hit Baguio City in the north albeit much worse. The 1990 Luzon Earthquake came unexpectedly, and at such a bad time as well with the country still recovering from a coup and two-decades of dictatorship.  More than a thousand people died, along with 28 buildings and took down access to electricity, water and communication from the city. Being a mountain city, Baguio became isolated after all roads leading to it were blocked by debris from falling boulders of rocks.

Yet, no one blamed it on the supernatural. According to experts the fault (as in blame, not fault line) is on the poor urban planning and build of the city’s infrastructures. Several buildings had reports of cracks or collapsing ceilings even years before the killer quake, it was also revealed that substandard materials were used in constructing several of the collapsed structures and that most of them did not have a building permit from the city government. In addition, disaster response was poor which undoubtedly contributed to the death toll.

This should be where our focus lies, the proper strategy to mitigate the destruction of such earthquakes or natural disasters in general. I refuse to agree that the recent Bohol earthquake attested to any decline in religious participation, but rather it exposed flaws in our urban planning and disaster preparedness. Rather than being scared into attending service, Filipinos should rather be worried that the country ranks third in the world among those with the greatest risk to disasters. The two nations in front of us are underdeveloped Pacific states Tonga and Vanuatu, while we are ahead of Bangladesh and Brunei.

In 2004, the Japan International Cooperation Agency released a report to the Philippine government that should an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.6 hit the Metropolitan Manila consequences will be catastrophic. The findings forecast that 170,000 residential houses will collapse and a further 340,000 residential houses will be damaged. The death toll expected is at 34,000 with a further 114,000 people injured. Their research employed careful use of statistics, science and engineering to come up with the results.

The agency then urged the government to set regulations for building capacities, residential zoning and to mandate the integration of earthquake-resistant technology in construction. They also encouraged the government to plan resettlement zones in case of any damage and set aside emergency funds. This was in 2004, nine years have passed and the government have balked on their pledge to act on the report’s findings.

We turn to God when a disaster such as the recent Bohol earthquake strikes, yet we fail to see how little we are doing to help ourselves. It might be wrong to say that nothing supernatural is behind this tragedy, but if God was to play a hand in these events it would be to remind the Philippines of an even bigger devastation that will inevitably occur if nothing is being done to prepare for it. As the saying goes, ‘do your best and God will do the rest’ but if nothing is being done what right have we to invoke God? Maybe once we have implemented all the recommendations instructed by JICA and still be devastated by a calamity, then we can start pointing the finger at the Almighty. But for now, we cannot.


Further Reading

9 thoughts on “Theology and Natural Disasters

  1. Mr. Encabo, your piece is very inciteful, mildly profound and realistic. You are the kind that our country needs to progress. you on the other hand is the reason our country is in a shithole !!!! Cowards like you who hides behind nouns instead of your real name shouldn’t be making negative comments on public forums. Say something that can and will help ASSWIPE !!!!!

      1. Sir Louie, pardon me for my reblog comment. It’s actually pertaining to people in general who contribute to crab mentality, and I’m not referring to you, either. Hope you understand that.

        And to Ren Luna, you don’t understand my comment very well. Peace be with you! (;

      2. Oh I do understand you crystal clear “MS”, maybe its you who comments on particular sections of the blog and not reading into the whole picture, could it be MS ?

  2. Should it not be God, the whole NCR is already a messy metropolitan dying under the sinkhole due to our lawlessness, both Christians and non-Christians alike. The “Big One” 7.9 Magnitude would have been occurred in NCR, it’s long-overdue according to JICA and PhilVocs, yet spared because God still considering a lot of praying Christians, not religious but people who cares for this country, who love God and neighbors. Philippines is the 2nd disaster-prone country in the world, this is a miracle – all countries lying under the ring of fire have gone through the “Big One” except the Philippines. And i am praying it will never come at all, but if we Filipinos cease to pray and do the right thing, God won’t spare. If we continue to blame each other , throwing stones on post, then we are all at bay.

    What would be the right thing to do? Disaster preparedness is even long-overdue advocacy, the government can be blamed on this issue , yep some are right blaming them , i do it sometimes. I did ask them once during our disaster summit ( NDRRMC / Civil Defense ) How prepared are we now since 2010 adaptation of RA10121, the answer i received was a total mess. They are just starting to prepare this October 2013. What the…

    It should have been started since Gloria’s regime, UN already suggested what to do to our localities and yet our LGU keeps on sleeping. Their dominant reason was : budget! This is hell-false. The Gloria admin before could have been done it, it just takes billions not trillions to prepare the NCR, just a matter of 1.3 Trillion a year of Pnoy PDAF to sacrifice , then the whole NCR is no longer highly vulnerable. A matter of billions to prepare each Purok, not just Barangay for for the entire RP – its own disaster clinic then we can reduce the risk. A matter of disaster reduction bill to create on congress such as retro-fitting, enhance 3 Meters away from the riverbank and strict implementation, waterways maintenance and enhancements, prevent street-level flooding situation in NCR, enhance per barangay disaster preparedness education, government to give incentives and supports to RA 10121 advocates for NGO, et al. Aywan ko ba bat simpleng decision lang sa mga suggestion ng UN , UP experts, JICA, Philvocs ay hindi masunod may pera naman talaga pla sangkatotak, kaya lang ayaw kasi ibigay sa taoong bayan ng mga Kongresista, senador at ng presidente, kasama na din ang LGU pati kapitan nak ng teteng isama pa natin ang chairman ng barangay mismo may PDAF padin sa ibang city ng NCR. Anyare?

    Cge, We always tagged as “Resilient Pinoy” when disaster strikes, but in reality, we are not prepared that’s why we use to call ourselves as resilient just to sugar-coat our stupidity and ignorance including our greed.

    Now, lemme go through theology ; Filipino ministers or Christian ministers are even worst on their social responsibility concerns, they are keeping abreast with spiritual matters and never realize that they are accountable with their environments and so with God and humanity. Religion and faith is not to be equated with actions. INC have done their part, albeit there is a need of correction on their plan of actions, but the message was crystal clear.

    However, they need to boost on disaster preparedness, Muslim and Christians are not advocating RA10121( just a handful of advocates ) Catholics are not even visible , all right just because we wanna throw all the balls to the government to prepare for us. That’s impossible. Who are they to take care of you within the first 72 hours of disaster? It is YOU, the total YOU to take care of YOU and your family and community. Let’s not wait for the govt to enact , let’s start today. Learn how to get prepared when disaster strikes.

    Natural disasters cannot be prevented, but we can reduce the risk, the casualty, just be responsible, be proactive, be educated, be prepared. Not becoming super-duper Christians who throw all dependence on God alone, including his brand of soap to use before taking a shower. Bad faith!


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