International Asia Dispatch from Manila: Life in the shadow of a volcano that could...

Dispatch from Manila: Life in the shadow of a volcano that could erupt any time

The city braces itself for the worst as the Taal Volcano spews ash and a Volcanic Level Alert 4 has been issued




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Manila—Life has taken an almost surreal turn after Taal Volcano started spewing ashes on Sunday afternoon, January 12. Toward evening, many parts of the city began to experience ashfall, fine but gritty grey dust that easily gets into your eyes, nose, skin, and hair.

We learned that night that we were under Volcanic Level Alert 4, which the national agency, Philvolcs, describes as “HAZARDOUS ERUPTION IMMINENT” wherein “persistent tremors, many ‘low-frequency’-type earthquakes may occur. Hazardous eruption is possible within days.”

And even if Manila is far from the critical radius of 14 kilometers around the volcano, those of us who have seen Mount Pinatubo erupt in 1991 know that its effects could be far-reaching. We have seen midday turn dark because of smoke and ashes. We have witnessed the rise of respiratory ailments and seen whole towns buried in lahar—violent mudflow and debris coming from the eruption.

Panic buying has begun, primarily for masks to cover our mouths and noses. Ordinary masks will not do, we were told that we needed N95 masks, which could filter 95 percent of airborne particulates, including volcanic ash. Since these masks are used in grinding and sawing, Manila residents are trooping to hardware stores and medical supply firms to buy them. The price of the masks have also risen due to demand. While they normally sell for less than S$1, some enterprising firms have sold them for 10 times the price.

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People have begun to leave their homes in affected areas, and evacuation centers in communities, schools, and even people’s homes have swung into action. To date, around 40,000 people have been evacuated from the towns surrounding the volcano. Classes, up to university level, have been cancelled metro-wide, and many employers have told people to stay home the following day.

Monday morning in Manila dawned uneventfully, but by then we could see in daylight what the ashfall had done. There was a grey layer of dust seemingly everywhere, which we were told to clean as soon as possible. And why? In the event that more ashfall comes, combined with rain, the resulting mass can be as heavy as cement, and bring whole houses down.

Many of us have taken the opportunity to store water, buy groceries and make sure our emergency lights are charged. In short, to prepare for imminent disaster.

And then the calls for aid have come in. They say disasters can bring out the best, as well the worst, in people, and Filipinos are no exception. The evacuees needed water, food, clothes, blankets, hygiene kits, breast milk, diapers, and even medicine, as there were those who were sick. Stories of people giving what they have start to unfold on social media—from food vendors, to farmers, to former victims of the Mount Pinatubo eruption nearly thirty years ago—now taking the opportunity to give back. Collection drives began.

A plaintive cry was raised for the animals left behind in the abandoned areas. Farm animals, yes, but also the horses that took tourists and guests up to the volcano’s craters, day after day, year after year. Animal rights groups, helped by caring ordinary citizens, gathered animals that had been left behind in haste.

In times of disaster, Filipinos know how to give. And in this time of uncertainty, this is one thing that has helped keep spirits up.

Since then, Taal Volcano has seemingly quieted down, although Alert Level 4 is still up. The national agency announced on Thursday (Jan 16) that it may lower the alert level due to the lull in activity, although it added that this “does not mean that hazardous eruption is no longer possible.”

In the meantime, we wait, mostly indoors, away from the lingering dust. We help where we can. We monitor the situation through news alerts. We help raise the spirits of our countrymen who have lost property, crops, livelihoods. We hope and we pray that the restive volcano calms down, so that life can go back to normal.

Having seen the wrath of nature through super typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, what more can we do? -/TISG

Read related: Philippines struggles to keep evacuees away from volcano

Philippines struggles to keep evacuees away from volcano

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