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Taal volcano eruption poses deadly dilemma for people living in its shadow

Maria Evangeline Tenorio Sarmiento struggles to wade through ankle-deep mud and debris to reach her house that’s been inundated with thick sludge.

Inside, the 52-year-old mother of two finds the roof over her kitchen has collapsed under the weight of ashfall.

The once-blue walls are now smeared in a thick layer of gray ash. Her son is up on the roof scraping off the mud in an effort to stop the rest from caving in.

“It was totally destroyed. I only saw it yesterday. I saw our barangay (village) and can’t help but cry,” she told CNN from the ruined house in Laurel in the Philippine province of Batangas.

Sarmiento’s piggery — a new source of income for her — is gone. Her five pigs dead.

“How can we rebuild our lives? How can we start again? I don’t have money to use as capital again,” she said.

It’s a bleak prospect faced by many families in Batangas and Cavite who lost their homes and livelihoods when the Taal volcano — one of the Philippines’ most active — began erupting last Sunday, spewing ash up to 14 kilometers (9 miles) into the air and generating volcanic lightning.

Heavy charcoal-like ash rained down on towns and villages, blanketing everything. Houses and trees buckled under the weight of it. Affected areas had no power or fresh water.

Outside Sarmiento’s hourse, the once bustling markets are empty, the fields left untended, the lush trees now gray and lifeless.

Many people here made their living off the rich land around the volcano, from fishing in the lake or from the many tourists that visit each year.

The volcano, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of the capital Manila on the island of Luzon, is like a time bomb. Volcanologists warn a bigger eruption could be yet to come — but no one can predict when, or if, it will explode or settle back down.

Sarmiento was at the local fish market when she heard a loud thunder-like sound followed by thick smoke. Her home lies within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the volcano.

“We went home and I saw my children stuffing all our clothes inside our vehicle, forgetting to put them first inside luggage. We immediately went up to a higher ground,” she said, adding that they stayed with her sister in the nearby town of Santo Tomas.

Thousands like her fled their homes when Taal suddenly rumbled into life. Caught off guard, many sought shelter in temporary evacuation centers carrying only the clothes they were in with little to no possessions.

Seismic activity had been recorded at the volcano since March 2019, but that morning the alert level was at one — meaning a hazardous eruption was not imminent.

“The speed of escalation was unexpected,” said Mark Timbal, spokesperson for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC).

By 7:30 p.m. the alert was raised to four, with Philippine authorities warning that an “explosive eruption” could happen in the coming hours or days. It prompted authorities to urge a “total evacuation” of people within a 14 kilometer (8.7 miles) danger zone of the volcano.

An explosive eruption could be extremely lethal. Ballistic fragments of magma could be violently expelled from the volcano, pyroclastic flows — fast-moving currents of hot gas and volcanic matter — could swallow anything in its path, and the volcano’s slope slumping into the surrounding lake could create a volcanic tsunami.

Residents would also be at risk from deadly toxic gases emitted from the eruption, and mud flows caused by ash mixing with water vapor in the atmosphere.

The lake that fills the caldera was another concern. Any water that intersects with the hot lava could immediately flash into steam and create an explosive system.

“We just had little time to prepare. From the first eruption at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday to the alert level four, we barely had time,” said Francis Tolentino, Senator and former mayor of Tagaytay, which overlooks the volcano and its lake.

Another bigger eruption could potentially send ash — which carries microscopic shards of glass — 100 kilometers (62 miles) away or more, contaminating the air and water supplies in distant locations. More than 25 million people live within 100 kilometers of the volcano.

The priority was to get almost half a million people living within the danger zone to safety. Towns around the banks of Lake Taal were placed under police lockdown and evacuations enforced.

By the following Saturday more than 70,000 people had sought shelter in 300 temporary evacuation centers. Many more are staying with relatives or friends in other provinces.

But in the days since Taal began erupting, a number of people have risked their lives by refusing to leave or returning home to tend farms and livestock or fetch personal belongings, even though a powerful eruption could happen at any time.

For many residents whose living depends on fishing the lake, a good harvest or for those who live hand to mouth doing odd jobs, staying in an evacuation center for an unknown period, while fields spoil or animals die, is a death sentence of its own.

When the Taal volcano erupted in 1754 it lasted six months. The deadliest eruption took 1,335 lives in 1911, and it lasted a few days.

Renz Mateo, 20, is from a small lake-side barangay in Agoncillo and said he sneaks past police every day to return home from a shelter because he said there is not enough food there.

“Most of the people here went to the evacuation center. I live in a very remote area. We also need water. Whatever we get from evacuation area, we try to maximize it. We lack food and water,” he said.

While government and NGO agencies are working to provide shelters with mats, food, water, clothing and hygiene kits, the conditions are cramped and stifling. The evacuation centers are often schools, gymnasiums, or even basketball courts and families sleep on the cold, hard floor or on folded-up cardboard boxes.

Because of the unpredictability of the volcano, no one knows how long they will have to stay there or whether there will be enough supplies to last the weeks or even months.

Mateo, who was escorted out of his neighborhood carrying a sack of rice on his motorbike by police, said he feels “lost.”

When the mud and ash started falling from the sky, he scrambled to get his mother out of the house and they ran to high ground in the mountains.

“We just take what is given to us. Our house was destroyed, we have nothing, no more house to go back to. We were only able to salvage few personal items,” he said.

The alert level for the volcano remained at four out of a possible five on Saturday. Fissures caused by the pressure from magma moving below the ground have opened up in several areas and deep cracks could be seen carving through roads.

Tremors are also ongoing. Some 666 volcanic earthquakes were recorded since Sunday, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS.)

“All these activity increases tell you that something is happening. But none of this says exactly what will happen in exactly what timeframe,” said Joseph Michalski, director of the Earth and Planetary Science division at the University of Hong Kong.

“That’s frustrating for people who want to evacuate or people who need to make decisions.”

At a checkpoint between Laurel and Agoncillo towns, one Batangas police officer whose team was cleaning the thick mud off a road said he was sympathetic to those who returned home. Charged with enforcing the evacuation order, he was torn.

“We are really in a difficult situation because we are mandated by the law to implement whatever our higher ups told us but we cannot help and also sympathize with these people because they are the victims of this eruption. They are worried about their livelihood and get whatever is left from their properties,” said Police Senior Master Sergeant Mar Carabeo.

The whole town of Agoncillo, on the banks of Lake Taal, is a no man’s land due to the extent of mud and ash. it clings to clothes and hair and the smell of sulfur lingers in the air.

Haunting images from those who went back to the Taal volcano island show a desolate landscape of destroyed houses and snapped trees covered in a thick layer of heavy ash. Half-buried bodies of horses and cows that could not escape the island lay in black sludge or floating in the surrounding lake.

Animals that survived the ashfall are caked with dirt and those who can have brought them to relative safety on boats.

PHIVOLCS has designated the entire volcano island as a “Permanent Danger Zone” and recommends strongly against permanent settlements there.

Nevertheless, people have inhabited the island. Some locals living on or near the volcano, many of them laborers or farmers, made money from offering horse rides to tourists. Others built their livelihoods farming the mineral-rich fertile soils that are associated with many volcanoes or fishing tawilis or “live sardines” only found in Batangas province.

The area is known for growing sweet pineapple, coffee called Kapeng barako, and for a dish of thick lomi noodles cooked with garlic. The busy international seaport of Batanagas is close by.

Lake Taal is also a popular attraction and many of the towns in the vicinity are tourism hot spots. There are several amusement parks, lakeside resorts and yacht clubs nearby. And the holiday town of Tagaytay is a popular getaway for Manila residents who often take boats onto the lake and hike up the volcano.

“Eruptions are actually relatively rare, in the greater scheme of things,” said David Phillips, head of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia. “Many of these landscapes are very beautiful and people want to go visit them.”

“It’s beautiful but it’s also potentially deadly — it’s that fatal attraction,” he continued.

Taal Volcano sits on the Ring of Fire — a horse shoe shaped belt in the Pacific Ocean basin where most of the world’s active volcanoes lie. It’s also where 90% of earthquakes happen as tectonic plates push against each other, causing tremors.

The “ring” stretches along a 25,000-mile (40,000-kilometer) arc from the boundary of the Pacific Plate, to smaller plates such as the Philippine Sea plate, to the Cocos and Nazca Plates that line the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Life for millions of people living around the Ring of Fire can often be precarious as they live and work under the constant threat of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or tsunamis.

On any given day there could be around 20 volcanoes erupting at any one time, according to the Smithsonian Institute’s Global Volcanism Program. And perhaps hundreds of earthquakes, according to Earthquake Track.

As one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world, the Philippines experiences more than its share of earthquakes, typhoons and other natural disasters.

“We have had a severe year,” said Richard Gordon, Chairman of the Red Cross Philippines.

A series of deadly earthquakes between October and December rattled the southern Philippines, leaving 600,000 people in need of assistance. Two typhoons in December killed at least 26 people and caused millions of dollars of damage.

Even without a potential second eruption of Taal — which could prove devastating for the local economy — the financial effects are already taking their toll.

The ash fall has damaged crops in the area such as corn and coffee, and continues to threaten fish stocks. In Batangas and Cavite provinces, 74,549,300 Philippine pesos ($1.5 million) worth of damage has been caused to agriculture, according to the NDRRMC.

Footage shows farmers surveying their ruined pineapple fields, which are coated in ash. Their harvest, and income for the year, has been lost.

Those in the evacuation zone face an agonizing wait to see if the volcano will explosively erupt, in which they will prepare for disaster, or if Taal will go back to sleep and they can slowly rebuild.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Sarmiento. She hopes the government will be able to “help us rebuild our lives and this barangay.”

CNN