When the 7.2 Philippine Earthquake Hits Home in Southern California

The concrete observation deck of Bohol, Philippines' Chocolate Hills attraction lies in ruins after the 7.2 earthquake on October 15.
The concrete observation deck of Bohol, Philippines' Chocolate Hills attraction lies in ruins after the 7.2 earthquake on October 15. | Photo: Courtesy Robert Michael Poole

Last Monday evening, I found myself in a sports bar in Los Feliz, my eyes attentively glued to the action on the television screens, rooting for my beloved Dodgers to win Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. It was a lively, raucous, and jubilant scene, where claps, cheers, and high-fives erupted whenever one of our boys in blue reached home plate.

But somewhere in between Hyun-Jin Ryu's strikeouts and Yasiel Puig's hits, I scanned my Twitter feed and saw a tweet mentioning that a 7.2 earthquake just hit, which was centered near "Balilihan, Philippines."

A large earthquake had just hit the Philippines, which struck early Tuesday morning in their time zone. I was immediately concerned. Somehow that place -- Balilihan -- seemed to ring a bell. Was it a place I've been to during one of my five visits to my parents' home country?

And somehow when I heard the name "Balilihan" in my head, I could hear my mom saying it, in her voice, in her accent. I started to grow more concerned.

I Googled "Balilihan" on my phone and when I saw a map with the dot in it indicating the town's location, I suddenly knew why I mentally heard my mom's voice.

And then I became extremely concerned.

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Last week's 7.2 temblor in the Philippines was centered in the province of Bohol, an oval-shaped island in the central part of the archipelago, just slightly larger than New York's Long Island in terms of square miles. It's a place known for tourism, for its countless limestone mounds in the island's center known as the "Chocolate Hills." A place known for its majestic white sand beaches, coveted and revered by Korean honeymooners, European scuba-divers, and Arab land investors. A place known as the native habitat of the Philippine Tarsier, a miniscule, wide-eyed, nocturnal primate. A place known for its historic Spanish-era churches -- many of which stood for well over a century before the first California mission even broke ground.

It's also a place where my mother was born and raised. A place where two of my aunts, numerous cousins, many of their children, and even a few children of those children live, where half of my own family tree stands. Last Monday night, I was hit with mixed emotions -- the euphoria of the Dodgers' victory was tempered by the worry and concern for the well-being of my loved ones in Bohol.

This earthquake has, both literally and figuratively, hit home for me.

In the few moments after mentally making the connection, I instinctively called my mom, who was only just a mile from where I was, to alert her of the news. She had already found out herself, busily scanning news reports on the web, and possibly any updates posted on Facebook.

When I was a kid, it used to be a late-night long distance phone call or a telegram that came from across the Pacific when there was urgent news to report. Now, it is e-mail. It is the Web. It is text messages. It is Skype. It is Facebook. It is Twitter. We use them every day, and take them all for granted, but together digital media forms the lifeline of communication that informs us on the safety and well-being of our loved ones, and provide an indication of where immediate help is needed.

Upon following up with my mom later, she had found out some early reports from some relatives a few hours after the temblor: The power went out (which complicates communication heavily), some of the bridges along the main highway had been destroyed, severing the vital links between towns, and many of those historic churches -- a few of them just decades shy of their quadricentennial -- had crumbled to pieces.

Residents of the Philippine town of Loboc, Bohol survey the damage of their 375-year old cathedral following the 7.2 earthquake on October 15.
Residents of the Philippine town of Loboc, Bohol survey the damage of their 375-year old cathedral following the 7.2 earthquake on October 15. | Photo: Courtesy Robert Michael Poole

The quake was not just some event on the news. It was real to me. I had been to those Chocolate Hills, some of which actually collapsed as a result of the tremor. I had been inside those historic churches. I had been on those now-buckled highways and downed bridges. Urban development and technology, had gradually changed the place upon each of my visits there, but many places largely remained the same. This catastrophe had suddenly changed everything.

Television news coverage had focused on damage to Cebu City, the county's second-largest metropolis, located just across the water from Bohol. I watched many a YouTube video of repair shops shaking, hotel swimming pools creating micro-tsunamis, and cathedral bell towers collapsing. I also have relatives there, and was relieved to see one of my cousins post a picture on Facebook of her apartment neighbors taking their outdoor evacuation in stride.

But TV news in the Philippines is usually only focused on the (usually political) happenings in the capital city of Manila, and very occasionally covering events in some of the other big cities. So my family here had to rely on the hyperlocal nature of social media to let us know what was going on. To no surprise, the most comprehensive photographic coverage of the earthquake damage in my mom's native Bohol were photos posted on Twitter, taken by visiting Tokyo-based travel writer Robert Michael Poole. And in contemporary Philippines, where many of its citizens work in better-paying jobs abroad, my communication lifeline spanned multiple countries: Facebook chats with relatives who work in countries like Dubai or Abu Dhabi relayed information from their parents back in Bohol.

So far, a week after the quake, my relatives are alive and accounted for, thankfully. Many of them instinctively headed inland after the initial tremor for fear of tsunamis. Aftershocks continue, rattling nerves, with the larger ones compounding the damage. To date, 185 have died, 11 are missing, 583 are injured, and some 46,000 structures have been damaged or destroyed.

October just happens to be Filipino American History Month. Undoubtedly, events that happen abroad like war, political upheaval, typhoons, and earthquakes have lasting effects on our community here in the U.S. -- especially with regard to our privilege, responsibility, and ability to assist our fellow Filipinos in the motherland.

Now the recovery begins. Medical attention is needed to treat the injured and prevent disease. People's lives and homes must now be rebuilt. And restoring the historic churches is possible, with time and money. As earthquake benefit drives organize and relief aid organizations mobilize, the communication lifeline will play a vital role, promoting donations, assessing needs, and making sure aid and supplies go where they are properly needed.

And that lifeline is not only important, not only is it vital, it is also reciprocal. For, as us denizens of Earthquake Country are inexorably linked to Asia and other continents via the seismologically-active Ring of Fire, there may very well be a time when my relatives across the ocean will find out -- via social media -- about some large earthquake in California, and would be extremely concerned themselves.

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