INTERIOR Secretary Eduardo Año yesterday said he has ordered officials in Batangas province to stop allowing evacuated residents to visit their houses while alert level 4 is in effect at Taal Volcano.
Año, at a press briefing in Camp Crame, also said that while the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) allowed local government units to decide on whether to allow the evacuees to check their properties, their decision should take into account inputs from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) which has said the14-kilometer permanent danger zone should remain off limits.
“We just provided a little humanitarian consideration. But this time, we will be very strict,” said Año, referring to a stop to the visits.
“We don’t know when it will erupt (violently). As long as we have alert level 4, we have to impose the lockdown (at the 14-km danger zone) and mandatory evacuation,” said Año.
Authorities have been telling evacuees to stay away from the danger zone as an eruption remains a threat because of continuing activities beneath the volcano. Alert level 4 means a hazardous explosion is possible within hours or days. The highest alert, level 5, means a hazardous eruption is underway.
Taal spewed steam and ash on January 12 when the alert level was raised thrice. Three days later, Taal appeared to be calming down but scientists said danger remains as the number of earthquakes recorded indicated magma was still rising.
Phivolcs chief Renato Solidum yesterday said there is a “re-supply” of magma, or molten rock, underneath Taal and a higher concentration of emitted sulfur dioxide, which means “magma is actively degassing beneath the volcano and the interaction of magma with water can actually cause explosions.”
“There is re-supply of magma from below based on earthquakes and ground deformation.
The re-supply is feeding into beneath the Taal Volcano Island. There might be additional activity in Taal Volcano,” he said.
“If it (magma) reaches the crater, it could cause a strong explosion,” he added.
The Taal Volcano Network recorded 673 volcanic earthquakes in the past 24-hour monitoring period. “Such intense seismic activity likely signifies continuous magmatic intrusion beneath the Taal edifice, which may lead to further eruptive activity,” it said.
Authorities have thrown a 14-km exclusion zone around the volcano, with experts saying an eruption could bring a devastating rain of rocks and magma and unleash a tsunami in the lake around it.
Several establishments reopened last week in the tourist resort of Tagaytay after the volcano had shown signs of calming, but authorities urged them to heed orders to close.
“We asked them to cease operations so no tourists or locals would be lured to that area,” said Interior Undersecretary Epimaco Densing.
Local officials allowed residents over the past days to check on their houses for a few hours, prompting Phivolcs on Sunday to stress that people should stay away from the danger zone.
Año said the visits will stop. “Yes, we’re stopping it (window hours). I don’t see the logic of giving four hours when in fact we don’t even know when it will erupt and in a matter of minutes everybody will die.”
NO ALERT DOWNGRADE
Solidum and Densing, at a briefing in Malacañang, dismissed calls of some local government officials for Phivolcs to downgrade the alert level.
Solidum said the alert level cannot be downgraded while magma is rising, there is a continuing increase in the number of earthquakes and fissures, and there is boiling of the lake around the volcano.
He said the lake around the volcano also appeared to have become shallower, and the worst-case scenario is that a magma explosion could lead to lava flowing into the towns surrounding Volcano Island.
Vice Mayor Charlie Natanauan of Talisay City in Batangas, in a radio interview, questioned Solidum’s warning of a possible eruption and said he would convince President Duterte to allow the return of their constituents to their homes.
He said Solidum is not God and he could not predict the actions of the Taal.
“Bakit naman nasabi niya, siya ba ay Diyos?” Natanauan said, adding he believes the volcano would not erupt because the situation is already normal.
“Opinyon niya ‘yon … Nag-iisa siya (Solidum) sa kanyang opinyon. Kami buong Batangas ang naapektuhan sa kanyang sinasabi. Pag-aralan niyang mabuti,” he also said.
Natanauan said of Natanauan.
He also doubted Phivolcs warning that a magma eruption could lead to lava flowing to surrounding towns. He said lava would stop once it hits the water around the volcano.
Asked to react to Natanauan’s statements, Solidum said in a briefing later yesterday, stressed a hazardous eruption is a possibility.
“Should I react? Do you want me to react? I’m just commenting on basis of the observations. I think you know all the details. Magma has risen to the surface and that has been erupted by the volcano. It is still there and still moving,” he said.
Solidum said “magma is recharging the volcano” and reiterated that “I have shown this in many meetings now.”
“We have been saying that in our bulletin. So the threat is there and the fact is Taal can have various explosions. People on the island can be affected suddenly by steam-generated explosion,” said Solidum.
He said he is not 100 percent certain that the volcano will explosively erupt and produce base surges “but the threat is there based on the condition when we raised the alert level” on January 12.
“And also, those conditions persist as we speak because of the recharge of magma. The volcano is still inflated; earthquakes signify that magma is moving. Earthquakes tell us that ground water beneath the volcano island is being boiled and steam is moving up and sometimes explodes,” added Solidum.
Densing said the government is determined to keep the people out of the 14-kiometer danger zone.
He also warned that business permits of establishments located within the danger zone may be canceled.
He said the interior department issued a memorandum ordering the closure of all commercial establishments along Tagaytay City while alert level 4 is in effect.
Densing said the memorandum order was issued to Tagaytay Mayor Agnes Tolentino after the DILG found one hotel that was still open shortly days after the explosion.
Several restaurants, malls, parks, and hotels opened over the weekend after the Tagaytay government gave the go-signal to go back to business.
The city government made the decision after Phivolcs said that the Tagaytay Ridge, despite being inside the 14-km danger zone, is not considered a “high-risk” area due to its elevation.
The Batangas Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office said 34,939 families or 134,631 persons are housed in evacuation centers as of 5 a.m. yesterday.
Batangas PDRRMO chief Lito Castro said the Batangas government has come up with measures to prevent the residents from returning to their homes inside the danger zone.
Castro also said they are in the process of decongesting some of the evacuation centers.
“What we are doing now is to decongest the overcrowded evacuation centers. We have identified some other places as evacuation areas,” said Castro.
“We are also addressing the need of additional toilets and portalets and we are about to receive on Wednesday augmentation from donors and coming from the national government,” added Castro. – With Jocelyn Montemayor and Reuters