Erring on the side of safety

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 22, 2020 - 12:00am

In the mid-18th century, Spanish galleons could enter what was then a salty Taal Lake from Balayan Bay, going around the lakeshore communities and then exiting through the same wide channel connecting the two bodies of water.

The visits by the ships that were large enough to cross the Pacific Ocean to Acapulco, Mexico for the galleon trade ended in 1754, when Taal Volcano had a cataclysmic lateral or sideways eruption that lasted for six months.

Taal town had been the provincial capital since 1732. It was located in what is now San Nicolas.

The eruption – what we now know as a base surge – so devastated the lakeshore communities that Taal and three other towns had to relocate and a fifth one disappeared. The eruption dumped enough volcanic fragments onto that wide channel to allow human settlement. It became known as Lemery, and there the town still sits, with water from Balayan Bay still entering Taal Lake, but only through the Pansipit River.

This was narrated to “The Chiefs” on Cignal TV’s One News last Monday by former director of the University of the Philippines National Institute of Geological Sciences Carlo Arcilla, who now heads the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, and Batangas historian Derrick Manas.

As of last Monday, portions of Pansipit River had dried up. So had the crater lake where the world’s so-called smallest volcano sits.

Together with the hundreds of volcanic tremors recorded daily around the danger zone, the continued emission of toxic sulfur dioxide as well as the appearance of road fissures from which gases are emanating, volcanologists are warning of a looming major eruption – possibly a base surge on the scale of the one in 1754.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology or Phivolcs is maintaining Alert Level 4 over Taal and the 14-kilometer danger zone around Volcano Island.

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On Monday, after several days of relative calm in Taal, fewer volcanic tremors and the sky clearing around the danger zone, Phivolcs warned that the volcano is simply “recharging” – with a “resupply” of magma again making its way to the surface.

The warning was issued as affected people are raring to get their lives back. Businesses reopened around the Tagaytay ridge overlooking the volcano field, with the clients mainly locals, relief workers, and a number of tourists wanting selfies with the restive volcano in the background.

A guy who returned to his farm near the ridge to clean the property, especially the roofing before it collapsed from the weight of the ash, came across such a tourist on a motorcycle. Asked what he was doing there, the bike rider showed four single packs of instant noodles that he claimed he would donate to the evacuees.

Law enforcers tasked to enforce lockdowns in the danger zones are complaining about such people. Affected residents, for their part, are insisting that they need to visit their homes at least for a few hours each day, to get supplies, check against thievery, feed animals that have not yet been evacuated, and I guess perform hygiene needs in private.

On Monday the vice mayor of Talisay – one of the towns in the direct line of fire in case of a base surge – fulminated against Phivolcs and its head Renato Solidum.

Vice Mayor Charlie Natanauan said no one can predict when a volcano will erupt, and Taal had simmered down sufficiently to allow Talisay residents to return to their homes. He also groused against warnings of the Department of Health against eating fish from Taal Lake due to possible high sulfur content. He had been eating tilapia from the lake since the volcanic explosion and ashfall on Jan. 12, Natanauan said, and so far he was still alive. 

Health Secretary Francisco Duque agreed with Natanauan yesterday, amending the warning and saying fish from Taal is safe to eat as long as it is still alive when taken out of the water. Arcilla also said the fish simply needs to be cleaned properly.

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The frustration of Natanauan is understandable. It’s been over a week since Taal’s explosion, with businesses closed, livelihoods in limbo, and people crowded in evacuation centers, with no idea of how long they might be stuck there.

When evacuees look out of their cramped temporary shelters, and see clear skies with no sign of ash plumes from Taal, naturally they will be eager to return to their homes. Every sunny day that passes, stuck in a tent with minimal privacy and an acute lack of toilets and other sanitation facilities, will be seen as a tragic waste.

Yet the danger looms. Arcilla warns that when Mount Pelée in the Caribbean island of Martinique had a base surge in 1902, the eruption of gas, steam and volcanic fragments destroyed the nearby town of Saint-Pierre in a matter of minutes, killing about 28,000 people.

Here are portions of an online account of that base surge: A cable repair ship had the city in direct view; the upper mountainside ripped open and a dense black cloud shot out horizontally. A second black cloud rolled upwards, forming a gigantic mushroom cloud and darkening the sky in a 50-mile (80 km) radius. The initial speed of both clouds was later calculated to be over 670 kilometers (420 miles) per hour. The horizontal pyroclastic surge hugged the ground and sped down towards the city of Saint-Pierre, appearing black and heavy, glowing hot from within. It consisted of superheated steam and volcanic gases and dust, with temperatures exceeding 1,075°C (1,967°F). In under a minute it reached and covered the entire city, instantly igniting everything combustible.

A rush of wind followed, this time towards the mountain. Then came a half-hour downpour of muddy rain mixed with ashes.

Derrick Manas stressed that Talisay now sits in what used to be the town of Old Tanauan, which was destroyed by the 1754 base surge of Taal. The ruins of Old Tanauan church can still be found in Talisay.

Taal Volcano might simmer down, but the current signs aren’t encouraging. Staying in evacuation centers, as Arcilla observed, can be “inhuman.”

Considering the history of the volcano, however, it’s better to err on the side of safety.

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For additional accounts of Taal’s eruptions, check out www.onenews.ph

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