Saturday, November 17, 2007

Studies in disaster

SCHOOL came back with a vengeance last week.

Last Wednesday, I was at my work station when I felt myself pushed and pulled, hard, twice, from behind. A practical joker, I guessed.

But I didn’t see anyone behind me, only the shocked face of my colleague. While officemates buzzed about the intensity-four earthquake tremors, I got in touch with my husband, whose office is located in a high-rise. Then at an uptown mall, he had not noticed anything unusual

I wondered about my sons. In their campus, the preschool, elementary and high school classrooms are found on the second up to the fifth levels of newly constructed buildings. But reasoning that the school authorities must have set in motion the standard drill for evacuation, I decided not to send a text message.

I felt a cold finger down my spine when, meeting up with my sons at the end of the day, I learned that there was no evacuation, no action taken at all by school authorities when tremors hit a few minutes after noon.

My younger son told me he was having lunch in the ground level of their canteen while his elder was rehearsing for a culminating activity in his fourth-level classroom. The latter said that he and his classmates even whooped up, fascinated by the sudden but brief vibrations.

Yet, the school’s inaction niggled. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Philvolcs) traced the epicenter of the Nov. 7 earthquake to an area bounded by Anda and Jagna in Bohol. In Cebu, the tremors ranged from intensity 3 in Lapu-Lapu to intensity 4 in the Banilad area. According to Philvolcs, only quakes with a higher intensity, from 6 up, can cause damage or destruction.

At the same time, seismic specialists say that people in high-rise buildings feel the tremors more, even if the intensity is lower than the critical level. Shouldn’t school authorities then have a disaster preparedness plan, whether for fires, quakes or any emergency that requires students and all personnel to file out of a building quickly and in an orderly manner?

Such a plan should include putting up labels that mark where the exits are or the nearest and shortest route for leaving a building. Using a building five days a week may lull one to the false complacency of familiarity, the presumption that people will know where to go.

But many post-disaster videos show that panic and the absence of any evacuation plan can turn even wide stairwells into death traps, people trampling on the ones who stumble and fall, bodies piling up and preventing escape.

Schools need to be ready for anything, anytime. In the aftermath of the Finland school shooting incident last Nov. 7 (the same day as the earthquake hitting Bohol and some parts of Cebu), police experts are debating the decision of the headmistress to direct students to stay in their classrooms when another student began his shooting spree at Jokela High School in Tuusula, Helsinki.

The headmistress died, as well as seven students and the shooter. Ten other people were injured in the ensuing panic to escape. One teacher followed the directive to keep his students in the classroom but later told them to escape through the windows when he saw the shooter walking down the corridor and firing at doors.

School shootings, specially the tragedies at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, have raised questions about campuses’ security precautions and readiness to deal with disaster.

Unlike the Virginia Tech loner, the Finnish teen gunman had no criminal record or reputation other than being “one of the boys.” Finland, unlike the US, has rare incidents of deadly shootings, the last one occurring in 1989.

But, as last Nov. 7 illustrated, schools have to be ready for anything, anytime. 09173226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Nov. 11 issue

No comments: