Raring to go home
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 24, 2020 - 12:00am

With Alert Level 4 maintained around Taal Volcano, evacuees are becoming more impatient by the day to return to their homes.

Desperate evacuees said they would sign waivers, absolving the government of liability in case Taal does erupt and causes death.

Cops enforcing the lockdown say the decision lies with local officials. These officials need clearance from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council headed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. The NDRRMC’s decision depends on the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

Phivolcs has been saying that there is a permanent danger zone around Taal that should have been off limits to human settlement ages ago, and the 14-kilometer-radius danger zone should be evacuated even under the lowest Alert Level 1.

President Duterte can set aside the Phivolcs warning and tell everyone they can go home although at their own risk. He might be hailed as a hero by those affected. Many evacuees have stressed that while every donation to ease their suffering is much appreciated, they don’t like depending on dole-outs. They have livelihoods that they want to sustain.

But what happens if the base surge or lateral eruption does occur, as Phivolcs has warned, and the death toll is grievous? What if Lemery, built on volcanic debris from the 1754 base surge, disappears into Balayan Bay?

The other side of the argument, of course, is – what if there is no more eruption?

Someone has to make the call for lifting the lockdown. Considering that volcanoes are just slightly more predictable than earthquakes, that someone must also be ready to take the fall in case the worst scenario materializes.

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This crisis at least should lead to a significant improvement in our preparedness for volcanic eruptions. We’re used to responding after disaster strikes: a typhoon, earthquake, torrential flooding. But we’re clearly not ready for a prolonged wait for the worst, entailing the evacuation of entire towns and cities.

While we have rudimentary preparation for a volcanic eruption – no one died, after all, in Taal’s phreatic explosion on Jan. 12 – we’re not prepared for this kind of indefinitely protracted displacement of about half a million people.

We’re now seeing the need for emergency facilities for animal rescue and care – one of the top reasons residents keep sneaking back to Taal Volcano Island and the lockdown areas. Barges could have been borrowed from logistics companies to ferry all those horses, cows, hogs, chickens and other livestock plus pets from Volcano Island. The animals also need their own evacuation centers.

It’s good to see the damayan spirit going strong amid Taal Volcano’s rumbling. At one point there was traffic build-up in the affected areas – reportedly due to the high number of vehicles bringing relief goods to the evacuees.

But you can see this prolonged uncertainty taking its toll on the affected residents. People are weeping over lost possessions and livelihoods, lost animals, and the possibility that life might never be the same again.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told us on “The Chiefs” last Wednesday on Cignal TV’s One News that “a majority” of Cabinet members are in favor of the “permanent relocation” of everyone within the 14-kilometer danger zone.

This is a long-term measure that Duque estimates will cost about P60 billion for the construction of housing alone for over 200,000 affected families.

He said the proposal has been discussed with President Duterte, who has given no indication so far of what he thinks of the idea.

Duque will surely make enemies of all the local officials who stand to lose their towns. But it’s an idea worth considering by Duterte, who professes that he does not intend to extend his stay in power and therefore need not worry about political fallout in 2022.

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A measure that has better chances of pushing through, with Congress already studying funding, is the construction of permanent evacuation centers so public schools need not be used for this purpose.

I have gone around the lakeshore towns of Batangas several times, and always enjoyed the visits. Lipa barako is one of my favorite local coffee varieties. The bulalo rarely disappoints. Taal is a lovely heritage town that still produces exceptional embroidered fabrics for barong Tagalog, terno and other Filipino formal wear.

It would be a tragedy if the worst-case scenario painted by volcanologists comes to pass: a base surge or lateral eruption of Taal Volcano that could devastate the lakeshore towns with the force of an atomic bomb.

Even Taal’s explosion of ash and rocks on Jan. 12 is already creating a humanitarian crisis in the affected areas. Duque said the cramped surroundings, the stress and uncertainty combined with the air still polluted by volcanic particles have been aggravated by poor hygiene and sanitation facilities at the evacuation centers. Thousands have become sick, and two have died of illnesses possibly made worse by the stress of being forced to abandon one’s home.

Apart from the spread of diseases in evacuation centers, there are concerns that the crisis is creating a pool of potential victims of illegal recruiters and other human traffickers.

We saw this in Eastern Visayas when it was devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda. In the weeks after the disaster, despite the flood of international assistance, evacuees made their way to Manila, looking for jobs – any job. People were knocking on doors, offering to work as household helpers just for free food and a place to stay. There was no way of telling if they were genuine typhoon victims, however, or prospective thieves, so the response was unenthusiastic.

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In case Duque’s politically risky proposal does not push through, there are reforms that can be pursued for the shorter term.

There are discussions on amending the Building Code so homes, schools and other buildings in areas near volcanoes – even outside danger zones – must have sloped roofing to prevent ash accumulation and the collapse of the roof. It will be tricky, though, to design gutters that won’t get clogged with the ash from the sloped roof.

Lighter construction materials may also be used, to make rebuilding easier and less expensive.

Whether sturdy or flimsy, of course, a volcanic base surge would destroy or even bury everything within a danger zone in a matter of minutes.

Or it might not happen in our lifetime.

There are evacuees who want to take the risk in order to get their life back.


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