THE Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) yesterday downgraded the alert level at Taal Volcano in Batangas from 4 to 3 due to the reduced threat of its hazardous explosive eruption.
The downgrade meant a cutback in the declared permanent danger zone from 14 kilometers to seven kilometers, paving the way for the return of most of over 300,000 residents displaced when Taal acted up on January 12.
In a press conference, Phivolcs director Renato Solidum said that while “the possibility of having a hazardous eruption has already declined, we are not discounting it (hazardous eruption).”
“Pag sinabi po nating Alert Level No. 3, pinapakita lang natin na bumaba na ang mga level ng mga parametro ng ating binabantayan (When we lowered it to Alert No. 3, we were simply saying that the parameters that we are monitoring closely have been reduced),” said Solidum, referring to Taal’s phreatic or steam-driven activity.
“Ulitin natin: ang Alert Level 3 ay nangangahulugan na may pagbaba sa tendency na magkaroon ng mapanganib ng eruption pero hindi po dapat natin sasabihin na tumigil na ang aktibidad sa bulkan o di kaya yung panganib ng hazardous eruption ay nawala na.
Nandun pa ‘yun, pero maliit (Let me repeat: Alert Lever 3 means that the tendency of a hazardous eruption has gone down but we are not saying that there is no more threat of a hazardous eruption. The threat is still there, but it has gone down),” added Solidum.
Alert Level 4 means hazardous eruption is possible within hours to days.
Solidum said a steam-driven eruption is still possible under Alert Level 3 because of the “very active” steaming underneath the volcano and the steam-laden plumes it spews.
He said Phivolcs will downgrade the alert level to 2 if the downtrend in the activity of Taal continues in the coming two weeks but added they will re-declare Alert Level 4 if the volcano’s activity escalates again.
In a bulletin, Phivolcs said significant earthquakes recorded by the Philippine Seismic Network across the Taal region has declined from 959 to 27 events per day. Volcanic quakes recorded by the Taal Volcano Network, which detects smaller tremors, were also reduced from 944 to 420 events per day.
Solidum said the reduced number of Taal’s volcanic quakes indicates that the rise of magma to the crater is no longer very active.
On the other hand, sulfur dioxide emission has also declined from 5,300 tons per day to 140 tons per day but has steadied at an average of 250 tons per day over the past five days. Phivolcs said the decline “is consistent with a progressively degassed shallow magma source and diminished plume activity.”
Phivolcs warned families returning to their homes to be “prepared for a quick and organized evacuation” in the event Alert Level 4 is restored.
Latest reports from the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (PDRRMO) showed 90,613 families or 329,679 persons have been displaced by the calamity and stayed in evacuation centers or with their relatives.
Solidum said it is up to local officials to manage the return of the people who were evacuated beyond the seven kilometer radius danger zone, even as he urged officials to assess the conditions on the ground, including the state of houses and roads, before allowing the return of the residents.
National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) executive director Ricardo Jalad said the lowered alert status means 90 percent of those who evacuated may return to their houses.
“Ang pwedeng bumalik is ‘yung outside of the 7 kilometer danger zone, except some barangays sa Laurel at saka Agoncillo na matindi ang sira, mga fissures, and may nasira ang bahay,” Jalad said.
However, Batangas Gov. Hermilando Mandanas said Agoncillo and Laurel towns, where fissures were earlier observed, will remain under lockdown.
Mandanas said it is the prerogative of the residents to return but suggested that the elderly and children remain inside evacuation centers because the threat of a hazardous eruption remains possible.
As of 1 p.m., evacuees have started to return to their homes, said Brig. Gen. Marciliano Teofilo, commander of the AFP’s Joint Task Force Taal.
“May unti-unti nang pumapasok (There are already some who are going home),” said Teofilo. “Ine-expect namin medyo dadagsa, pero kanina may instruction naman si governor na i-limit, by phasing, para hindi naman dalhin ‘yung mga sakit, mga bata (We were expecting most of them will be rushing home, but we got orders from the governor to limit their entry by phasing, and if possible, not to bring yet their children and those who are sick),” Teofilo said.
Teofilo said it will be better if the residents first check their property and return to the evacuation centers because Taal remains “unpredictable” in spite of its declined activity.
Teofilo said he has visited areas that were excluded from the original 14-kilometer danger zone to check on the condition of the roads. “If Alert Level 4 or 5 (actual hazardous eruption) is declared, extricating the evacuees is one of our concerns,” he said.
On whether electricity was already restored outside the new seven-kilometer danger zone, Teofilo said electric cooperatives have been doing restoration work for a few days already.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, in a radio interview, reminded local executives that the national government will have the final say on the return of the evacuees.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel and concurrent presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, in a radio interview, reiterated that families residing within the seven-kilometer permanent danger zone are still not allowed to return to their homes while those living beyond that have the option to return home or stay in the evacuation centers.
Panelo said local leaders can recommend allowing their constituents to return to their homes if they see that it is already safe, but the recommendation will still have to be evaluated.
Meanwhile, the Department of Education (DepEd) reported there are more than 1000 schools in the CALABARZON (Region IV-A) that were affected by the eruption of Taal Volcano.
Based on its January 25 update released on Sunday, the eruption affected a total of 1,058 schools with 641,023 students and 19,584 personnel.
DepEd said classes in the schools have been suspended and some of them are being used as evacuation centers.
It said classes are suspended in 1,010 schools in the cities of Batangas, Lipa and Tanauan; 38 in Cavite, including Gen. Trias City; and 10 in Laguna, including Calamba City and San Pablo City.
On the other hand, 321 schools are being used as evacuation centers: 277 schools in Batangas, 34 in Cavite and 10 in Laguna.
DepEd said 536 personnel have been displaced in 272 evacuation centers in the provinces of Batangas, Cavite, and Laguna.
The agency’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Service (DRRMS) and Division DRRM coordinators have provide psychological first aid to 101 students displaced at the Asis Elementary School and another 30 students displaced at Cupang Elementary School in Bauan, Batangas over the weekend.
Following the recommendation of the City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, Tagaytay City Mayor Agnes Tolentino said classes will resume in the city today, January 27.
Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara said the 2020 budget for calamity funds was slashed by P4 billion, from P20 billion to P16 billion, because there is still a balance of P7 billion in the 2019 calamity funds.
Congress has approved the extension of the validity of the 2019 national budget because of the delay in the approval of the 2019 General Appropriations Act and the disbursement prohibition during the 2019 senatorial and local elections.
In an interview over dzBB, Angara issued the clarification amid a query made by Sen. Panfilo Lacson as to why the P20 billion budget for calamity funds this year has been decreased by P4 billion.
“As of late November, there was still P7 billion calamity fund for 2019. Alam naman namin na ipapasa ang extension of validity ng 2019 budget. So, mababalik ‘yun P7 billion plus the QRF. Kapag titignan mo ang situwasyon ay kaya ng pondo pero hindi naming na-foresee na may magaganap na ganito
(As of late November, there was still P7 billion calamity fund for 2019. We [lawmakers] knew that we will pass the extension of validity of the 2019 budget [since the 2019 national budget was passed only last April 2019]. So, the P7 billion plus quick reaction fund [for 2019] will be retained. If we look at the [prior] situation, our funding is enough but we did not foresee the eruption of Taal Volcano),” said Angara, chair of the Senate finance committee.
He said the President has asked for a supplemental budget to “make sure that we can respond well to calamities for fear that calamity funds will be depleted since it is only the start of the year when Taal erupted thus the government needed funds.”
Angara said they also would like to determine how much funds affected local government units have so they can tell how much more calamity funds will be needed for approval.
To his estimate, the provinces of Laguna, Cavite, and Batangas still have combined available calamity funds of P3.85 billion which the LGUs can readily utilize.
Angara said the Senate is just waiting for their counterparts in the House of Representatives to transmit its version of the approved supplemental budget so they can start with the deliberations for its approval.
“Kami naman ay handing tugunan at bigyan ng pansin but there is a process, kailangan magmula sa Kamara. Kami sa committee ready kami to have hearings
(We are ready to respond but there is a process to be followed. It must emanate from the HOR. We at the Senate committee are always ready to have hearings),” he said.
Tingog party-list Rep. Yedda Marie Romualdez reminded local government units to observe the law mandating special protection to children before, during and after disasters when attending to evacuees of the Taal Volcano eruption,
“They need to comply with the provisions of RA No. 10821 in attending to needs of the children affected by the Taal eruption,” said the lawmaker, chair of the House committee on the welfare of children.
One requirement spelled out by the law is the establishment of an option for transitional shelters, prioritizing vulnerable and marginalized groups including orphaned, separated, and unaccompanied children, and pregnant and lactating mothers.
Under the Children’s Emergency Relief and Protection Act, new transitional shelters must be designed with the following considerations: gender-specific emergency latrines, bathing cubicles, and hand washing facilities specifically designed for children.
The shelters must also provide mother and child-friendly spaces where children can take part in child activities. It shall also have provisions for maternal and newborn and infant care and rooms to protect, feed, provide personal care, and ensure the right to privacy.
Existing transitional shelters, on the other hand, shall be modified to the extent possible to comply with the abovementioned considerations.
“This law led to the formulation by the DSWD of the Comprehensive Emergency Program for Children, which provide for the humanitarian standards for the protection of children in disaster areas. Our LGUs need to be aware of this program for their strict compliance,” she added.
Under the law, the Comprehensive Emergency Program for Children shall be used as the basis for handling disasters and other emergency situations to protect children, pregnant and lactating mothers, and support their immediate recovery.
“The law is clear: this Program shall be implemented immediately after the declaration of a national or local state of calamity or occurrence of any other emergency situation,” Romualdez pointed out.
Romualdez explained that the program was formulated to facilitate and ensure the immediate delivery of basic necessities and services specifically required by the affected children in different stages of development such as access to basic health services, food, water, nutrition, medicines, clothing, sanitary and hygiene kits, and other emergency needs such as blankets, mosquito nets, cooking ware and fuel, and flashlights.
“The Program gives priority to the specific health and nutrition needs of pregnant women, lactating mothers, newborn babies, and children under five years old,” she said.
Deputy Speaker Vilam Santos-Recto said her proposal to create the Taal Commission will ensure the flow of funds to aid the victims and rehabilitate affected areas.
She explained that the financial aid for the Taal victims could come in tranches: P30 billion for the first year and P10 billion for the next two years.
“It’s like what was done in (the Mt.) Pinatubo (eruption of 1991). There was also a Pinatubo Commission that really helped a lot and when the lives of our Cabalens became stable, the commission as also abolished. We want to do the same thing for Taal,” she told a TV interview.
Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, chair of the House committee on ways and means, last week filed House Bill No. 5977 creating the Taal Commission to be the primary agency of the national government for the “relief, resettlement, rehabilitation and livelihood services, for strategic advanced comprehensive integrated reconstruction of Taal eruption-vulnerable areas.”
Under the bill, the commission is primarily tasked to “formulate policies, plans, programs and projects for the relief, rehabilitation, resettlement and livelihood services as well as infrastructure development in harmony with the other plans and policies of the National Government and other agencies.”
The bill also seeks to create the Joint Congressional Oversight Committee to monitor the implementation of the proposed law.
The committee shall be composed of five senators and five congressmen to be appointed by the Senate President and the Speaker, respectively.
The oversight committee shall be co-chaired by a senator and a representative designated by the two congressional leaders. – With Jocelyn Montemayor, Rod Lagusad, Raymond Africa ad Wendell Vigilia