March 23, 2023

I vividly remember when the earthquake struck in July 16, 1990. We were having a regional meeting at the former Department of Tourism building where the former office of the Chamber of Commerce used to be.

The first jolt was strong followed by another jolt and incessant aftershocks. I told the staff to get out of the building. As I finally got out myself, I was thrown from one end of the office entrance to the other end, and thrown again to the other side. The flagpole was swaying like a stick at an angle. You would think it would hit you. I could not walk straight and was falling.

The staff were huddled outside the building when the security guard, bless him, advised me of the women trapped inside the meeting room of the former National Media Production Center (now Philippine Information Agency). I could not remember his name anymore, but he was one of the heroes of that big earthquake.

Since there was a glass door at the back of the building, I instructed him to break the glass so he could let the women out. I found out later that tita Leonora San Agustin, the former executive director of the Baguio Museum, was at Camp John Hay.

I also never got the names of the ladies who were trapped inside the meeting room during the earthquake. My staff from Ilocos Norte and La Union started their trek home as all the roads were closed. The others went to look for their children or walked home. A very strong hail storm followed. This outpour gave us the opportunity to save water. Electricity was out. With a baby who was bottle-fed, we needed rainwater.

Then I remembered my children. Where were they? Within a few minutes after, my husband appeared in our car. He was with all three of them. A sigh of relief. Instinct and gut feel must have guided my husband, Ed,to first pick up Deke from UCCP, went straight to SPED to pick up Nashi, and went straight home.

Somewhere near Jade Restaurant near Baguio General Hospital, Ed felt the car swaying. He thought he was having a flat tire, until he saw posts swaying. With a swift ride to our house, he saw my baby Reggie with her yaya – Merlene at the foot of the stairs. Merlene was another hero for me. She just grabbed the baby and run down the stairs where Ed found them in the rain. From there they went straight to my office.

In a span of minutes, we learned Hyatt and several hotels went down. I, with Ed, who was a member of (Regional Emergency Assistance Communications Team (React)-Canao, got instructions from the DOT central office for the regional office to assess the damage.

Then President Cory Aquino was to relay a message through React-Canao radio. We were told to gather tourists’ statistics and data from hotel to hotel.

It was a time of turmoil and difficulty, being victims ourselves. We were still dazed and floating but the job had to be done. No mobile phones then. We just relied on the old reliable hand-held radios. To this day, I still believe that the most reliable form of communication in the absence of electricity and landline telephone connections are the handheld radios. They may be outdated to some with cell phones, pero kung walang kuryente, ano na?

I don’t know what center of gravity is affected when an earthquake strikes, but the general feeling is shaking of the knees and a feeling of dizziness. Nakakapanglambot. This is a great lesson for disaster preparedness and communication systems.

Earlier on, the DOT central office, because of the 1989 coup d’etat, had formulated a central command system, which is activated during calamities. The whole DOT from the Office of the Secretary, offices of the undersecretaries, to the regional offices with tie-up with the local government units and national offices are put on alert.

All telephone numbers were listed and given to all offices for implementation. This system was started under former DOT Secretary Peter Garrucho and Usec. Rafael Alunan.

We were also told to prepare an interim report as the DOT secretary was landing by chopper with Alunan the following day. We did not know where they were landing or when. With limited gasoline, we inspected what we could. Hyatt Hotel, Nevada Hotel, Burnham Hotel, City Hall, etc. People were like zombies, dazed and staring blankly. My family stayed in the car, all nine or 10 of us. Don’t ask me how we fitted but we did. We waited for further instructions from central office amidst the unrelenting aftershocks.

When Garrucho landed by chopper, he came with several key personnel from the Office of the President. To my amazement, they were carrying two of the first ever mobile phones. They were as big as car batteries. But wonder of wonders, they were wireless. The gadget had with it a battery pack.

The DOT-CAR-Region 1 office became the first ever consular office. We were deluged with representatives from all embassies who were looking for their citizens and tourists who wanted to be transported immediately to Manila.

In turn, the DOT central office sent 20 tourist police personnel. They were to gather data from hotels and the airport of tourists who were either stranded, dead, or alive.

These statistics were sent to Manila for monitoring and for the general information of all embassies. The statistics were all recorded. Medicines, canned goods, blankets, soup, kitchen items were also sent for distribution.

This somewhat eased the trauma of the earthquake experience for me, my children, and the staff who remained as we were kept busy. Every night we would all gather for debriefing for the day and steps to do the next day. Data from the hotels, authorities and embassies were put together for transmission. We manned the DOT regional office for inquiries coming from the different embassies. In turn, they also supplied us with statistics so we could tally from both sides. There were a lot of stories, but that is probably for another time.

When the earthquake with similar intensity happened again last July 27, I just waited for it to stop. No more obligations. My children went to me to ask me to get out of the house. The scenario has changed 360 degrees for me after 32 years.

However, I remember one ordinance came out of this earthquake: that buildings should not be higher than the trees. We never learn. We keep on repeating the same mistakes. This jolt is surely an eye-opener.