Excruciating
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 18, 2020 - 12:00am

Unfortunately, volcanoes are wild things that do not respect deadlines. They blow up, pipe down and then blow up again. They proceed by their own drummer.

As a precaution, vulnerable barangays in 12 shorefront towns are ordered evacuated. That is a massive logistical undertaking.

We could have as much as a million people moved to evacuation centers. While there, they would need to be fed. Sanitation will be a problem that grows with each passing day. Diseases could spread the longer they stay.

Eventually, the evacuees will become restless. They will demand to return home at the slightest signal that the volcano has tempered down.

Fortunately, scientists and not politicians are in control of the situation. Otherwise casualties will mount.

Even as Taal appears to have simmered down, Phivolcs is maintaining Alert Level 4. The tremors continuing in all of the towns surrounding the lake and the appearance of fissures on the ground, Director Renato Solidum tells us, indicate magma is on the move beneath the surface.

There are other signs. The water at the crater lake has disappeared. Taal Lake has receded. Rivers have dried up. A hazardous eruption is not only indicated. It is imminent. 

For as long as Phivolcs maintains a high alert level, all the evacuation protocols will be observed. Whole towns will be locked down, at gunpoint if necessary.

The feared eruption may happen in the next hour or many months down the road. We simply do not know. Nature must take its course.

Meanwhile, the massive evacuation will take its toll. Large amounts of supply of basic necessities will have to be assembled. They will need to be efficiently distributed by organized volunteers. The local governments will have to take the lead in organizing ground operations.

So far, we have seen an outpouring of generosity from our people. Food deliveries have been adequate. There is never a want for volunteers. Even the animal rescue groups have swung into action.

We hope this holds if the excruciating wait for the feared eruption stretches into weeks.  It will help if the tens of thousands of evacuees are moved farther away from the danger zones and adopted by well-organized communities in the nearby provinces.

The farther away they move, the more bearable conditions will be. They will have ample water and uninterrupted power supplies. They will be more accessible to the flow of supplies.

We can never really plan for calamities. But in this case, we should begin thinking of a prolonged evacuation of a large number of people.

Taal could take its time before advancing to the climatic phase of this volcanic episode. We just have to be smarter than this temperamental mountain.

Absurd

The smallest political unit in our setup is the barangay. During calamities and during elections, officials of this smallest political unit come under all sorts of stress. Some of the things that befall them are truly absurd.

On the scale of absurdity, this story from the little town of Navotas probably takes the cake.

On May 13 last year, the day of elections, a group of men in two vehicles accosted Rommel Sopera, a driver and employee of the Navotas city hall. They accused Sopera of vote-buying and announced they were making a “citizen’s arrest.” After forcing him onto their vehicle, the men took Sopera’s phone and cash.

The men who “arrested” Sopera then brought him to the barangay hall of Barangay Tangos South. Barangay chairman Wilfredo Mariano was at his post when they arrived. He explained to the men that the alleged election offense was not in his jurisdiction. Having learned that, the men left.

When Mariano learned that a phone and some amount of money were taken from Sopera, he insisted the incident be entered into the barangay blotter. After that, he assisted the victim in writing a complaint-affidavit recounting the incident. The chairman even offered his guest some water. After all the procedures were completed, Chairman Mariano asked two barangay volunteers to escort the victim to where he had parked his motorcycle.

For Mariano, that seemed the end of this case. During election days, incidents like this one are usual.

To Mariano’s great surprise, he received in July a notice from the city prosecutor’s office to answer charges for kidnapping, serious illegal detention and violation of the Omnibus Election Code. Accused along with him are two other persons the barangay chair did not know.

To his greater surprise, Mariano was informed the charges were brought against him by Rommel Supera. This was the same person he helped prepare an affidavit recounting the incident that day.

Mariano thinks he was included in the charges for political reasons, having stepped on some powerful toes in this small town. He fears the city prosecutor could bring the charges to court. The charges being serious, the poor barangay chairman is afraid he could be detained without bail.

He has written letters to the city mayor, the DILG secretary and even President Duterte himself. Perhaps because his case is too local and perhaps even trivial, the barangay chairman has received no response to his letters to date.

This might indeed appear to be a run-of-the-mill incident illustrating the perils facing the smallest public officials caught in the maelstrom of partisan conflict between powerful factions in the locality. But precisely because it is so usual, it deserves wider attention.

Barangay officials have so little power and so much responsibility, including playing frontline roles in the war against drugs. They deserve protection.

PHIVOLCS RENATO SOLIDUM
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