AUTHORITIES are shifting focus to debris clearing operations and rehabilitation of areas affected by the restiveness of Taal Volcano in Batangas, as thousands of evacuees continue to head back to their houses because of a reduced threat of hazardous eruption.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology lowered the alert on Sunday to level 3 from level 4. It also cut the coverage of the danger zone to seven from 14 kilometers, paving the way for the return of evacuees outside the current exclusion area.
Alert level 3 means “sudden steam-driven and even weak phreatomagmatic explosions, volcanic earthquakes, ashfall, and lethal volcanic gas expulsions can still occur and threaten areas within Taal Volcano Island and nearby lakeshores.” Level 4, which was raised on January 12 when Taal intensified its activities, means a hazardous explosion is possible within hours or days.
“Operations are underway to clear the roads of blockade and obstruction,” Brig. Gen. Marceliano Teofilo, commander of the AFP’s Joint Task Force Taal, said adding the operations are being conducted with other agencies like the Department of Public Works and Highways.
Ricardo Jalad, executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, said debris-clearing is part of rehabilitation efforts.
Jalad said NDRRMC member-agencies started drawing up the rehabilitation and recovery plan as early as last week, and more meetings are needed to finalize the recovery plan.
Jalad said the plan can be completed in “two or three months, maybe earlier because the entire province is not affected.”
Teofilo said they have allowed residents of Agoncillo and Laurel towns to return, except in five barangays within the seven-kilometer danger zone. These are Banyaga and Bilibinwang in Agoncillo town and Bugaan East, Buso-Buso, and Gulod in Laurel town.
Batangas Gov. Hermilando Mandanas on Sunday said the two towns were still under lockdown in spite of the lowering of the alert status.
Teofilo said: “The lockdown is now lifted except in the five barangays covered by the (seven-kilometer) danger zone.”
Teofilo said the return of the evacuees was proceeding smoothly as of yesterday afternoon, and the military is helping transport them.
The Batangas Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office said that as of 11 a.m. yesterday, some 85,700 families or about 312,500 persons are staying in evacuation centers or living with relatives, down from about 90,610 families the previous day.
Taal Volcano maintained its weakened activity.
In an 8 a.m. bulletin, Phivolcs said activity at Taal’s main crater over the past 24-hour monitoring period “has been characterized by weak to moderate emission of white steam-laden plumes 50 to 800 meters high that drifted northeast.”
It said sulfur dioxide emission was measured at an 87 tons per day.
It said the Taal Volcano Network recorded 170 volcanic earthquakes over the past 24 hours, down from 420.
The Department of Education recommended the resumption of classes in affected areas starting February 3.
Education Secretary Leonor Briones, in a briefing in Malacañang, said several schools, most of them in Batangas, Cavite and Laguna, are still under ashfall while some are still being used as evacuation centers.
She said the DepEd has been working with local governments to find alternative sites that can be used as evacuation centers.
In Batangas, at least 1,108 schools are affected along with 644,080 students.
She said the DepEd hopes schools far from Taal will be able to resume classes by February 3 and follow the modified school calendar that the department prepared to enable the schools and students to complete the required number of school days by April.
The modified school calendar includes holding classes on Saturdays and Sundays.
Briones said DepEd cannot waive the required number of school days.
Under the modified calendar, the affected students must still complete 58 school days.
Classes had been suspended in parts of Batangas since January 12.
The final examinations for grades six and 12 students should be held from March 20 to 21, and March 27 to 28 for grades one to five, and seven to 11.
Graduation, moving-up, and recognition days should be done between April 1 and 6.
The Department of Public Works and Highways said tremors from Taal left some P137 million in damage to national roads. – With Jocelyn Montemayor and Rod Lagusad