“Chona Mae”: Cebu Tsunami Scare of 2012


On February 6, 2012, it was a balmy yet overcast noon. Cebu City, the country’s second largest metropolis suddenly went into a grip of mass panic. “Hala oi! Tsunami man kuno!” (“Oh my, it’s a tsunami!”) said one. There were screaming and shouting on the streets. Vehicles started to move towards “Uptown Cebu,” honking their horns while people along Jones Avenue (Osmeña Boulevard) frantically ran towards the higher grounds. It was a scene of chaos that was week recorded and uploaded online through social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. The videos went viral—to a watching public mixed with shock and horror while others laughed about why this ever happened. It was dubbed “Chona Mae” incident to some.

It happened and somehow it has etched in the memories of Sugboanons as one of the most memorable events that happened in the last decade. However, this mass panic, or hysteria, did not happened just so sudden and somehow it exposes the vulnerability of our society not only because of natural phenomenon, but of false information.

Earthquake Jolts Neighboring Negros Oriental

Eleven minutes before noon, a strong magnitude 6.9 earthquake shook neighboring Negros Oriental. Its epicenter was only around less than 100 kilometers southwest from Cebu metropolis. The quake, generated by a thrust fault movement, was very destructive (Intensity VIII) and caused widespread damage to most of northern Negros Oriental and parts of Negros Occidental. While it did produced tsunami offshore, these were around five (5) meters and struck mostly along the coastlines of Negros and Cebu fronting Tañon Strait. (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, 2017)

The isoseismal map of the 2012 Negros Earthquake (Source: Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology)

Most of the fatalities were from Negros Oriental, with 51 deaths. (Garde, Clamohoy, & Andrade, 2013)

It shook Cebu City moments later, jolting the city strongly for the first time in decades with an Intensity VI (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, 2015) on the PHIVOLCS Earthquake Intensity Scale or PEIS.

Chona Mae or Tsunami?

It was around 2 in the afternoon, almost two hours after the strong jolt, that the tsunami scare started. According to an article posted by the local daily Freeman:

“Based on the accounts of witnesses Ryan Pedrosa and Roldan Espina, both motorcycle drivers, at 2:00 p.m. while they were waiting for passengers in Barangay Lahug they saw people running and heading to Barangay Busay, a higher ground, saying a tsunami was coming.”

The article added that there was a man in a motorcycle warning them that there is a tsunami coming. The man, later identified as Danilo Cogtas was accused of inciting public disturbance, to which he denied later in the court. (Manto, 2012)


Another account narrates the popular lore that there was a person shouting “Chona Mae” from Pasil or somewhere downtown. According to this lore, a person was looking for a girl named “Chona Mae” which was misinterpreted later as tsunami, that triggered the said event. Though this needs verification, ask any Cebuano and they may refer this lore as one of the reasons of the said tsunami scare in 2012, albeit jokingly or seriously.

There were reports of text messages stating that the “waters have reached downtown Cebu and SM City Cebu” (Delos Angeles, Napallacan, Fernandez, Uy, & AFP, 2012) and others stating that it has “reached Carbon, Mambaling or Labangon areas. (Tundag, 2012)


In a Rappler account, it narrated several experiences from different people. The account of photojournalist Charlie Salceda amid the chaos that has ensued the city: “Everyone was trying to flee Carbon area and downtown Cebu to move to higher ground, particularly in Guadalupe and the provincial capitol grounds.” On the other hand, the account of a business process outsourcing agent Ron Anudin recounted that people screamed since the tsunami was getting close. (Santos, 2012)

Evelyn Mendoza, a resident in Gotianuy Compound along Jones Avenue recounted her experience in an Inquirer article:

“Nagdinaganay naman, apil mga estudyante. Ang uban nagtiniil na lang gud. Tsunami baya, kinsay dili mahadlok ana. Nagkurog pa akong tuhod hangtod karon.” (Aranas, 2012)
A video uploaded by Jose Gochangco, a hotel employee, showed people running away from Colon and heading towards Fuente Osmeña, which is in “Uptown Cebu.” He recounted in his ABS-CBN interview:

“Pagtingin namin sa labas, may mga tao nang tumatakbo, may mga kotseng bumubusina. Puro flat land dito, pumupunta yata sila sa pedestrian bridge for safety, o gusto lang nilang makalayo sa tubig,” (Lacap & Fernandez, 2012)

Videos of the Cebu Tsunami Scare were uploaded on social media, particularly on YouTube where you can see “on the ground” scenario of the scare.


That afternoon, Representative Tomas Osmeña of Cebu City went on air and reminded people to calm down and a tsunami that happened in Japan on the previous year would not happen in Cebu. (Delos Angeles, Napallacan, Fernandez, Uy, & AFP, 2012) He was referring to the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated northern Japan which took almost 20,000 lives (Japan Fire and Disaster Management Agency, 2021, p. 31)

It may have coincided with the fresh flashbacks of the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 that was heavily documented and was broadcast live on international TV and the internet. The dramatic footages of destruction of sea water rushing and creeping inland with houses, cars, and buildings carried away may still be fresh for many of the Cebuanos at that time. 


Was the 2012 Tsunami Scare of Cebu a case of “collective” or “mass hysteria?” It may, but let our fellow sociologists or psychologists study it thoroughly. The American Psychological Association defines it as:

“The spontaneous outbreak of atypical thoughts, feelings, or actions in a group or social aggregate. Manifestations may include psychogenic illness, collective hallucinations, and bizarre actions. Instances of epidemic manias and panics, such as choreomania in the Middle Ages, tulipmania in 17th-century Holland, and radio listeners’ reactions to the Orson Welles broadcast based on H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds in 1938, have been attributed to collective hysteria.” (American Psychological Association, n.d.)

The aftermath of the tsunami scare was barrage of criticisms in handling the scenario. However, the most pressing was on how false information, or in today’s term as “fake news,” can bring down a city into chaos. Wrong or distorted information has been a concern back in 2012 in relation to this mass panic. It is of a greater concern almost a decade later.

Works Cited

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). collective hysteria. Retrieved from APA Dictionary of Psychology: https://dictionary.apa.org/collective-hysteria

Aranas, H. (2012, February 08). Tsunami rumor sparks panic in Cebu City streets. Retrieved from Inquirer.net: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/141731/tsunami-rumor-sparks-panic-in-cebu-city-streets

Delos Angeles, E., Napallacan, J., Fernandez, C. E., Uy, J., & AFP. (2012, February 07). Tsunami warning triggers stampede in Cebu City. Retrieved from Inquirer.net: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/140899/tsunami-warning-triggers-stampede-in-cebu-city

Garde, M., Clamohoy, J., & Andrade, B. (2013, February 06). Remembering the February 06, 2012 Quake. Retrieved from Sunstar: https://www.sunstar.com.ph/article/268531/Bacolod/Remembering-the-February-06-2012-Quake

Japan Fire and Disaster Management Agency. (2021, March 9). Press release no. 161 of the 2011 Tohuku earthquake. Retrieved from Japan Fire and Disaster Management Agency: https://web.archive.org/web/20210309040708/https://www.fdma.go.jp/disaster/higashinihon/items/161.pdf

Lacap, L., & Fernandez, R. (2012, February 06). Tsunami scare hits Cebu City. Retrieved from ABSCBN News: https://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/regions/02/06/12/tsunami-scare-hits-cebu-city

Manto, M. P. (2012, December 13). Tsunami scare suspect pleads not guilty. Retrieved from Philstar: https://www.philstar.com/cebu-news/2012/12/13/885510/tsunami-scare-suspect-pleads-not-guilty

Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. (2015). 06 February 2012 Negros Oriental Earthquake Report of Investigation. Quezon City: Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. (2017). Reminisce of the 2012 Ms6.9 Negros Oriental Quake. Retrieved September 24, 2021, from https://www.phivolcs.dost.gov.ph/index.php/news/616-reminiscence-of-the-2012-ms6-9-negros-oriental-quake

Santos, D. Y. (2012, February 06). Panic grips downtown Cebu. Retrieved from Rappler: https://www.rappler.com/nation/panic-grips-downtown-cebu

Tundag, J. (2012, February 8). Cebuanos in panic. Ouch. Retrieved from Philstar: https://www.philstar.com/opinion/2012/02/08/775171/cebuanos-panic-ouch