'We've Lost Everything': In Philippines, Fleeing Volcano Means Losing Livelihoods
Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET
A volcano that has thrown a blanket of ash over much of the Philippines' main island of Luzon in recent days is somewhat quieter, but tremors continued and authorities warned people that a deadly new eruption was still possible.
Evacuations from a 9-mile danger zone around Taal Volcano, about 60 miles south of the capital, Manila, picked up pace Thursday. Some 57,000 people have reached evacuation centers since the initial eruption on Sunday. But that is far from the half-million, mostly living in the hardest-hit province of Batangas, who have been ordered to leave the area.
Displaced villagers were crammed into some 257 evacuation sites, and officials were struggling to supply their basic needs, including ash masks, portable toilets and bottled water, a provincial disaster-response officer told The Associated Press.
Visits to government shelters revealed that many evacuees had to sleep on cardboard cartons, rather than mattresses, and at times without blankets. Medic Genevive Dilig says children have arrived at her center in the city of Tagaytay with diarrhea and fever, and that the elderly suffer from hypertension. She says there is a shortage of medicine, especially for high blood pressure. Water supplies are low, and evacuees are warned that tap water is not potable. "We don't necessarily recommend" that they bathe in it either, "but that is what they are doing," Dilig said.
Most of the evacuees are children, and keeping them occupied is a priority for the shelter providers. Nuns are on hand to sing songs and play with the children at the latest evacuation center in Tagaytay, which opened in a former drug treatment center and houses some 271 displaced families. In the past 24 hours, the site has been filling up fast.
Farmer Rufo Gamaro brought 61 people with him to this Tagaytay center on Wednesday morning. He told NPR that the ash in his barrio, or barangay, is knee-deep.
"Our barangay was buried in so much ashfall ... [and it] was so dark that nobody could see where to go or where the roads are," Gamaro said. He added that he, "lost all the crops, the corn, the fruit, the vegetables. Lost the animals – the pigs, the chickens, the cats, the dogs."
Gamaro is an elected councilor in the town of Laurel, one of 12 that the Interior Ministry ordered evacuated on Wednesday. He told NPR that he had returned to his home, at great risk, to tend to the few animals that had survived. He said he managed to feed a few of them but that his fish farm was destroyed and all the fish are dead.
Elsie Malabanan is a 44-year-old health worker from the same neighborhood as Gamaro. She says that in the chaos of abandoning her home, she was separated from her family and has been unable to make contact with them. Malabanan is alone and frets about what lies ahead. Wiping tears from her eyes, she says: "I'm afraid that there is nothing to go back go. Our barangay is a ghost town. I don't know how to start my life over again. It's so painful to think we've lost our livelihood. I don't know where or how we're going to be able to start that life again."
Tagaytay city has become a magnet for evacuees. Situated just northeast of the volcano and within the 9-mile exclusion zone, it is considered safe because of its elevation. At 2,000 feet above sea level, it's thought to be protected from lethal volcanic activity such as pyroclastic flows. Electricity has been restored in some areas of the city, and business owners have been cleaning away the ash and preparing to start trading again.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said there had been nearly 600 volcanic earthquakes — some as strong as magnitude 4 — caused by the subterranean movement of magma pushing up from the bowels of Taal Volcano.
The institute's Maria Antonia Bornas, the chief of monitoring and eruption prediction, said the volcano's plume had become a "weak emission" of ash, but she cautioned that "intense seismic activity" persisted, making the situation "a bit tricky right now." The institute maintained its Level 4 warning, with Level 5 reserved for an ongoing eruption.
"We are analyzing what this seeming calm of the volcano means," Bornas told reporters.
"At this stage, we're not ruling out the possibility of a hazardous eruption yet, but we're also now looking at the possibility that there may be a lull for a considerable period of time," she said, according to Rappler.
This could present a dilemma for the people living near the volcano — many of whom have already been evacuated — as well as for the authorities who ordered them to leave.
Police and security forces have already had to block roads to prevent villagers from slipping past to check on their belongings, livestock and pets.
If the volcano — located on an island in the middle of a caldera — goes through a prolonged calming, it could make enforcing the evacuation orders more problematic.
On Thursday, despite days of warnings that the volcano could blow, police argued with people from four villages on the edge of the volcanic lake as they tried to cordon off the area.
"We've lost everything, our house got damaged, but I need to retrieve my pots and cooking wares and other things. They should not be very, very strict," Erlinda Landicho, 59, told the AP.
Many living on the slopes of the 1,020-foot Taal rely on their animals for survival, and leaving them behind has fostered a sense of helplessness.
"We won't have food on our tables if not for them," Jun Despededa, 21, who was using water from the lake to scrub volcanic ash from his horse, told Reuters.
The news agency says that about 1,000 horses were among the livestock left behind on the island as people fled, along with cows, goats and pigs.
One horse owner wanted to take advantage of the volcano's lull to rescue as many animals as possible, but the coast guard, patrolling Taal Lake, rebuffed the villager's pleas, Reuters says.
Jose Clyde Yayong, the local disaster management chief for the city of Tagaytay managed to sound optimistic about the unfolding crisis.
"We are just lucky that we experienced this," he told NPR. "It will help us realize that preparing for any event ... is very important."
Taal is one of the smallest but most active volcanoes in the world. It has erupted more than 30 times in the past 500 years, most recently in 1977. An eruption in 1911 killed 1,335 people, and another in 1965 killed an estimated 200.