Three lethal earthquakes have rocked in recent weeks wide areas of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, killing 17, injuring hundreds and dislocating over 140,000.

That may be just the front edge of a bigger disaster, Philippine seismologists say, amid official warnings that temblors will continue to jolt the southern Philippines through at least December’s Christmas season. The scientists say the region is now in the grip of an “earthquake swarm” that could last for several months.

Indeed, fears are rising that the worst is yet to come, with some seismologists drawing parallels to the country’s deadliest ever earthquake in 1976 in Mindanao, a 7.9 Richter scale temblor that caused a tsunami that killed 8,000 across a 700 kilometer stretch in Mindanao.

A dramatic shift of the Cotabato trench triggered that disastrous quake. Scientists have now recorded new shifting movements in the trench, while stressing there is no fail-proof way to predict when earthquakes will strike.

Following the October 31 6.5 quake that jolted large parts of Mindanao, state seismologists have also been closely monitoring the Makilala-Malungon fault that they warned could potentially cause a disastrous 7.2 magnitude quake.

A reading of 10 is highest on the logarithmic measure, where a difference of one represents an approximate 30-fold difference in magnitude.

Aftermath of the 6.5 magnitude quake in Digos City, Davao del Sur province, about 90 kilometers away from the epicenter of the October 31, 2019 earthquake in North Cotabato. Photo: Bong S. Sarmiento

Central Mindanao, where North Cotabato province is situated, is one of the most seismically active regions in the archipelagic nation because of the presence of several active faults in the area.

Besides the Cotabato trench, state seismologists are now closely monitoring other active faults around North Cotabato province, the epicenter of a destructive 6.3 magnitude quake on October 16.

The Philippines lies in the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, an arc of intense seismic activity around the Pacific Ocean where most of the world’s earthquakes are recorded.

Earthquakes with magnitudes of 6.6 and 6.5 rattled Cotabato in the mornings of October 29 and 31 respectively, with the latest temblor literally shaking President Rodrigo Duterte while he fast asleep.

Duterte, who was in his hometown Davao City at the time, was awakened by his bodyguards when the quake struck, shaking hard enough to cause cracks at his house.

The tough-talking leader, who is at odds with some Catholic church leaders who have criticized his deadly war on drugs, was safe and told his security escorts to pray for safety.

The president had not visited the quake-affected areas, leaving the situation to his Cabinet as he proceeded with his schedule to Thailand for the ongoing Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

His daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, rushed to inspect a mid-rise condominium damaged by the quake in their hometown. She also visited other quake-affected areas in nearby provinces.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, administrator of martial law imposed in Mindanao until December 31, 2019 in response to terrorism threats, has been designated to lead the relief efforts in quake-affected areas in the island.

Lorenzana instructed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to establish check points in North Cotabato and Davao del Sur, two of the provinces worst hit by the series of earthquakes, to ensure only authorized aid workers are given access to evacuation centers.

Donations of food, water, tents and used clothing continue to pour in for the quake victims from other local government units and private groups, as local and national government agencies have urged a concerted effort for the even distribution of relief to the victims.

But there are certain indications of a lacking response. Days after the October 31 temblor, many home-based evacuees have not yet received relief assistance in some parts of Makilala, one of the worst-hit towns, from either the government or non-government organizations.

Along the roadsides littered with flattened or tilted houses, the residents mounted placards asking for rice, water and tents. On November 4, a local official told Asia Times that they have banned unauthorized donors from giving directly to victims along the road, over concerns of road safety and equitable aid distribution.

People receive medical assistance outside Kidapawan Doctor’s Hospital in Kidapawan City after an earthquake in Kidapawan City, Philippines October 16, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Source: Twitter

For Ano Loma, 50, a carpenter, the October 31 tremor dashed his family’s dream to live in a bigger concrete house, which he had slowly built over a 10-year period.

The October 31 quake knocked down the half-concrete, half-wooden house where Loma’s family of three had been living. It already suffered damage from the two earlier quakes last month.

“The quakes were horrific. The ground growled. The earth moved fiercely not just sideways but up and down,” Loma said in the vernacular. His wife Ranyfe was sitting nearby, sifting through the things they have salvaged after the devastating tremor, including the child’s school supplies.

The couple, like thousands of other families in the town, are sleeping outside of their destroyed house, waiting for tents to protect them from the elements. Others have opted to seek refuge in evacuation centers.

Initial National Disaster Risk and Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) data showed that the earthquakes affected 29,349 families or 146,745 individuals, of which 4,217 families and 20,635 individuals have sought refuge in 27 evacuation centers.

The data added that about 21,000 houses were totally destroyed while 755 schools were damaged, devastation that will stretch already thin public financial coffers.

A woman in Digos City, Davao del Sur was injured after debris fell on her during the October 31 Magnitude 6.5 earthquake. Photo: Bong S. Sarmiento

The October 31 quake rendered serious cracks to portions of concrete roads in North Cotabato, although the crucial highway linking different parts of Mindanao remains passable to all kinds of vehicles.

Mayor Reuel Limbungan, of Tulunan town, where the epicenters of the two earlier quakes were traced, stressed that beyond the physical impact, the quakes left a trauma to victims that will last a lifetime.

As the last two quakes struck in the morning while most were at either work or school, the official noted the mental ordeal they hope to address with the help of volunteer psychosocial therapists.

“The tremors were very traumatic to the learners and even to the teachers. It has been more than 15 days of disaster,” he told Asia Times, referring to the aftershocks they have felt since October 16.

Unlike typhoons or floods, there’s no way to tell when the earthquakes will hit again, the mayor added.

Amid more than 1,000 aftershocks since the October 16 quake, several dozens families from his town have received cash assistance from the government’s National Housing Authority, which pledged to extend a paltry P30,000 (US$600) for each destroyed and P20,000 ($400) for each damaged house.

“It is important that we observe protocols so our resources can be managed and everyone shall be able to receive,” acting Cotabato govenor Emmylou Talino-Mendoza said.

A policeman watches as a resident retrieves his motorcycle among the rubble of a building in Mindanao, Philippines, on Oct 31, 2019. Photo: AFP

In one of the evacuation centers in Makilala town, quake victims on November 1 mobbed a pick-up truck run owned by a private individual who was distributing snacks and slippers.

The quakes have also exposed the need for the government to revisit the vintage National Building Code of the Philippines, which the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos signed in 1977.

Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, Duterte’s long-time aide, and House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, have vowed to amend the old building code to bring it up-to-date, both in relation to the proliferation of high-rise buildings and the growing frequency of typhoons and earthquakes.

Minutes after the October 16 quake struck, a fire razed a mall in General Santos City, where the temblor was recorded at a Richter scale intensity of 5, displacing over 1,000 workers with damages at the property pegged at P2 billion ($40 million).

The other key cities hard-hit by the quakes were Kidapawan in Central Mindanao and Digos in Southern Mindanao, where many tall buildings, department stores and homes have been also destroyed.

With aftershocks and potential new quakes projected to last until around Christmas, residents in quake-hit areas not reached by government or aid organizations have become desperate with the lack of food, water and tents for their immediate survival.

Those now living along national highways in Central Mindanao have mounted placards asking commuters for relief goods, only to be reprimanded by authorities to stop and return to state-run evacuation centers. But many remain exposed on the open road.