Taal Volcano Eases, but Philippines Worries Worst Is to Come
BALETE, Philippines — Taal Volcano’s eruptions have eased in the past 24 hours, scientists said on Wednesday, but they warned that the picturesque mountain was still threatening hundreds of thousands of people just 40 miles south of Manila.
Renato Solidum, Jr., who leads the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, said that Taal’s calm could be deceptive.
“What we’re saying is that it was generally weaker compared with yesterday,” Mr. Solidum said, adding that it was “hard to tell” if the mountain was also easing its rumbling.
Taal, the Philippines’ second-most-active volcano, surprised even volcanologists when it suddenly erupted on Sunday. Within hours, the volcano on an island in the middle of a lake shot a plume of ash a mile high and triggered multiple earthquakes.
The new year dawned in the Philippines with one grim expectation: Somewhere at some point, the archipelago nation would be battered by a natural disaster, probably more than one.
Whether it be typhoons, earthquakes, mudslides, tsunamis, volcanoes, droughts, or floods, the Philippines has been victimized by them all.
Taal’s eruptions were a reminder that the country of 105 million is perched on the Pacific Ocean’s ring of fire, where seismic activity is at its most ferocious.
Mr. Solidum said that Taal remained on the fourth of a five-step alert level, meaning that a hazardous explosive eruption was possible within hours or days. The earthquakes that followed the earlier eruption have caused large fissures in the ground, proving the volcano’s intense energy and hinting at an imminent explosion, Mr. Solidum said.
Residents on the island, as well as those in provinces within a 14-kilometer (or 8.6-mile) danger zone, have been ordered to evacuate.
Classes in some parts of Manila and in the surrounding provinces have been suspended since Monday. Emergency crews have managed to restore power and electricity to some areas, though a large part of the region still remained in the dark.
But living with the continual threat of a natural calamity has inured some people to the danger, even as communities gathered together to tend to the 50,000 people from the provinces of Cavite and Batangas who have been sent to 200 evacuation camps.
Ignoring orders to stay away, some residents ventured back to their destroyed homes to salvage whatever they could — horses, electronics and photographs — from the thick mud before the Coast Guard began preventing people from returning.
On Tuesday night, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana warned against breaking the Coast Guard cordon and recommended that the island, with its sulfuric sludge, be declared a “no man’s land.”
“Let’s not allow anyone to return there because if there will be another, more violent explosion, all the people there will perish,” he said.
President Rodrigo Duterte visited affected areas on Tuesday but did not say whether he would declare the island a no-go zone. He ordered officials to speed up the delivery of basic services to displaced populations, even as he chose the occasion to criticize Batangas for supposedly having become a drug haven.
Mr. Duterte has unleashed a so-called war on drugs that has resulted in the killing of thousands of people in what rights groups say is a campaign of extrajudicial slaughter.
Nature is also deadly. From 1997 to 2016, 23,000 people in the Philippines died from natural hazards, the Asian Development Bank estimated, with 6.8 million affected each year on average. Climate change, poverty and environmental degradation worsen their plight.
In 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted north of Manila, the second-largest eruption of the century. A passing typhoon turned Pinatubo’s ash and lava flows into a deadly exodus of mud. At least 800 people were killed, even though tens of thousands of others had been evacuated earlier when the mountain began belching lava and ash.
That same year, Tropical Storm Thelma left 6,000 people dead or missing.
In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan raged across the central Philippines, devastating the city of Tacloban and leaving more than 7,300 people dead or missing.
The characteristic resilience with which the Philippines faces natural disaster meant little to Jesus Habal, 67, who sat in a corner of an emergency shelter in Santo Domingo town, mourning his family’s ancestral home in Talisay town, in the shadow of Taal Volcano.
Mr. Habal described the huge boom and torrent of ash as “one of the scariest episodes of my life.”
With a cane and the help of his granddaughter, Mr. Habal made it out. It’s unlikely he will be going back anytime soon.
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