A whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on
On Monday afternoon, February 6, 2012 at 11:49 AM, there was an earthquake of magnitude 6.8 centered about 100 kilometers from Cebu City. This is a city of about a million people located near the center of the country of the Philippines on the island of Cebu and it is where I am currently living.
The earthquake was closer to several other smaller population centers where it caused more destruction. With no active faults nearby, damage was minimal in Cebu City itself, which is not normally prone to earthquakes. This is about as bad as it gets – which is to say, not really that bad.
Geography protects Cebu
There are other nearby islands and larger islands further off which enclose Cebu island. This and the fact that Cebu Island is long and narrow reduces the probability of dangerous tsunamis here. This current earthquake happened off the other side of this mountainous land mass.
Safety measures taken
People were predictably and justifiably frightened after the earthquake, and most big buildings were wisely evacuated as a precaution. Around noon one could see many employees milling around the streets, especially in front of big buildings. Most malls were not allowing more people in as a precaution. There were a couple of milder aftershocks.
About an hour after the earthquake, things were returning to normal, and employees were reentering the big buildings. Almost everyone understood the magnitude of the earthquake and where it was located.
There was a tsunami watch issued right after the quake as a precaution, but it was canceled by 2:00p.m. The alert said no evacuation of coastal areas was needed, just keep an eye out.
Delayed panic, false rumors
The strange part happened next.
Just after 2:00 p.m., over 2 hours AFTER the earthquake, panic gripped the entire city.
People were receiving text messages of a tsunami having overtaken parts of Cebu City. If you understand Filipino culture, you know that text messaging is almost the major method of communication here, almost on a par with talking face to face. False rumors started spreading. Others claimed to have seen the tsunami and started running inland. People all over the city began running away from the ocean, many of them barefoot having lost their sandals or taken them off so they could run faster.
Trying to gain perspective
My hotel is located about 2 kilometers from the ocean. I noticed people screaming and running in the alley where my hotel is, about 50 meters off a major road. I went out to see the commotion. People said a tsunami was on its way!
So I went and turned on my TV. Nothing.
I looked on the internet. Nothing.
I went to the roof of my four story building, and there was no water approaching. This panic, with the timing so long after the quake – which was not a major quake and centered on the other side of the island – made absolutely no sense to me. So I just stayed put and figured this was a false alarm.
Naturally, I also felt pretty safe being so far inland.
Terror prevents seeing the truth
But the truth didn’t seem to matter.
People all over the city literally ran for the hills. This was happening a full 2.5 hours after the earthquake. If there were a tsunami, it would have hit minutes after the quake. I got text messages that certain parts of town were underwater (including parts I knew would not be underwater even in a real tsunami because they were too high and too far inland).
I received texts that EMall and ACT University, located about 1 kilometer from the ocean, were flooded. Later, we talked with the guards who said people were pleading to enter these buildings so they could go to the upper floors. The guards sent someone to the roof of the 10 story building to look out with a periscope before allowing people in. However, they saw nothing but calm seas.
Residual fear and looting
Cars were abandoned on the streets as some motorists fled. Markets more than a kilometer inland were left abandoned and goods were stolen in their owner’s absence. Whole work groups of professionals fled buildings and were running for their lives from an imaginary tsunami.
I have to admit, this is one of the most bizarre incidents I have ever encountered. Even by late afternoon, many people who had fled numerous kilometers inland on foot, refused to believe that there was not a tsunami and were scared to return.
And yet, there was no tsunami. There was no surge, no somewhat big wave…
It was all a fantasy and rumors fed by false text messages and false beliefs.
Making the best of a bad situation
I took the opportunity to work out at the running track downtown, an area that many thought was underwater. Usually it is crowded, but I got to work out with almost no other people there, because they were scared off by a tsunami that never happened.
There were articles about this panic in the paper on Tuesday, the day following the quake. I read that the panic ultimately caused more damage to daily life than the earthquake itself. Authorities were seeking some individuals for prosecution for spreading false rumors. Other officials want to revamp a sort of Emergency Broadcast System of some type.
While life here in the Philippines may be confusing sometimes, at least it isn’t boring…