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A Crazy Monday

February 6th, 2012 started as ordinarily as any other Monday. People were groaning about the start of the new week and whining about the slow-moving traffic. Office workers were in their cubicles, students were in their classes.

My only class starts at 12:30 pm on Monday, so after oversleeping and whining about my sinus headache, I soon realized I was running late. So after a hurried lunch, I left home about 11:45 am, knowing full well I was going to turn up late for class since travel usually took more than 45 minutes. It took me about five minutes to walk to the main road and hail a jeep. Around 11:50 am, by the time I reached the first elementary school, I noticed that people were pouring into the street, causing a minor traffic jam. Looking up, I saw young children vacating the upper floors of the school buildings with harried, frightened expressions on their faces. I interpreted this as a fire drill, and ignored the commotion and continued to listen to Michael Bublé on my earphones.

As we turned around a corner, a middle-aged woman boarded the jeep and was talking and gesturing incessantly, her face anxious. Taking off my earphones, I heard the woman say that there had been an earthquake. Impossible, I thought. Cebu is not that seismically active. If the woman was right, the earthquake could have originated from islands away and we would feel only the weaker shock waves. But as the jeepney traveled further south, my fellow passengers and I soon realized that the woman was telling the truth. For a lunch break, there were too many people flooding the streets. People were evacuating high-rise buildings and schools. There were even more people gathered outside buildings as I approached downtown. They wore the same look on their faces, the look of someone who’d never experienced a strong earthquake before.

I arrived in school 15 minutes late, but students and teachers alike were all outside the campus. I was told that classes had been suspended, and my concerns were confirmed: There has been an earthquake. I could not believe it. The moment I realized the shocking truth, I knew there was only one place to be: home.

After ensuring that the streets were safe enough, I hurriedly walked to a shortcut where I could ride another jeepney home, but I was able to hitch a ride in a friend’s car. Several streets had been rerouted, and fire trucks were abound, so we took a longer route but I arrived home safe and sound, shortly after 1 pm. I was thankful that electricity had not been cut; I turned on the computer, TV, and radio, desperate for information. And there it was: A 6.9 magnitude earthquake had struck between the islands of Negros and Cebu, in the central Philippines.

I’ve lived my whole life in Cebu City, the second-largest metropolitan area in the Philippines. Home to some 2 million people, Cebu City is a bustling metropolis. Located strategically in the heart of the archipelago, I had thought that there were no active fault lines in Cebu, geography and geology being interests of mine. Even though the Philippines sits in the Ring of Fire, I had thought that we would not receive the brunt of an earthquake, (let alone a 6.9) and that most quakes that would be felt here would be no stronger than a 5.0.  I was wrong.

The events began to unfold on national TV and even got a mention by Al Jazeera only a few hours after the quake. By 2 pm, a level 2 tsunami alert had been issued by Phivolcs (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology) for the eastern coast of Negros and the western coast of Cebu (Cebu City is in the eastern coast).

I was very thankful I was already at home. Downtown, people were beginning to receive false reports, propelled by word-of-mouth and text messaging, of a tsunami approaching the city. Who would not run from a tsunami?

It was pandemonium. As what I could hear from the radio, frightened people rushing uptown, mothers frantically carrying their children, students taking off their shoes to run better, cars being abandoned in the streets. One could liken the scene to a disaster film: Only there was no actual disaster. The false rumors and reports of an incoming tsunami had left thousands of people in a state of mass panic, abandoning dignity just to get as far away from the sea. The major thoroughfares were filled with a throng of people all headed in the same direction. People were literally running for their lives. By the time Phivolcs had lifted the tsunami alert at 2.30 pm, people were still racing en masse toward the mountainous areas.

  

To be honest, I was frustrated. I knew many famous earthquakes, having been interested in them since I was a kid. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake, the 1960 Chile earthquake, the 1964 Alaska earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. They all fascinated me. It made me want to feel what it was like to be in that earthquake. Maybe I was one of the lucky few who did not feel the 6.9 temblor, as I was in a moving vehicle. I was unknowing, I was oblivious. I did not have that mini heart attack, that chill down my spine. Today, I chide myself for ever wanting to get caught in one.

By late afternoon, my entire family had assembled in the living room, much to my relief. A few friends and classmates of mine had been caught in the “tsunami fun run” as they later jokingly named. That night, as the entire city began to calm down after running from the tsunami that never came, I felt three strong aftershocks, a 6.2, a 6.0, and a 5.0, all within two hours. It was dizzying and it was terrifying. I did not want that feeling again. My friends would immediately tweet, “AFTERSHOCK!” I, of course, joined them as the rest of the country watched.

The hysteria following the earthquake received mixed reactions. Some felt it was too much of a reaction for people to just believe rumors and race toward the mountains. But if I were there, even though I had prior knowledge of what to do after an earthquake, I, who had no information at that moment, stuck in the middle of a crowd not knowing what to do, would of course, run. It would have been the most rational thing to do, to just run. Who would have thought twice?

It is February 8, two days after the shocking events of Monday. I was in class earlier today at the 3rd floor of the CIM building and experienced another magnitude 5.2 aftershock.  As of this morning, 1,239 aftershocks have been recorded, 75 of which were strong enough to be felt.

This has been an entirely new experience for me. It was surreal. It was incredible. Even though I was absent from much of the uproar downtown (I never even felt the main shock!), I would never want to be in that kind of situation for anything, not even an imagined tsunami. What I learned from this is that even things thought to be impossible, and what is most important in this kind of event is a calm, composed mind. This might have also opened the eyes of the Cebuano people and the Filipino people alike, who are always ill-prepared for natural disasters, to mobilize for disaster preparedness. Always be prepared: the Philippines was the country most hit by natural disasters in 2011 according to the UN.

26 people have been confirmed to have been killed in the 2012 Negros-Cebu earthquake, and a few dozen remain missing in subsequent landslides. Neighboring Negros Oriental was hardest hit; search and rescue/retrieval operations continue. The earthquake was tectonic in origin, and revealed a new fault system seismologists had not yet mapped.