Ignoring Punongbayan’s protocols

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    IT should be taken more than finger-pointing but a proper exercise demanding public and moral responsibility and accountability for Taal Volcano’s sudden and deadly threats to life and property, as well as for the chaotic evacuation in Batangas and Cavite. Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr.’s call for a congressional investigation on the failure of Phivolcs to issue a timely alert prior to the devastating eruption of Taal Volcano should be welcomed.

    Just like many of us, the Dasmarinas City congressman had probably looked back in 1991 when Phivolcs, then headed by Raymundo Punongbayan, had closely monitored the restive Mt. Pinatubo and issued an evacuation alert a week before its eruption on June 15, 1991.

    House Resolution 643 that Barzaga authored reads in part, “To be sure, due to lack of information, while Taal is already manifesting increased volcanic activity, people still traveled towards it, while those who we were already near were shocked to see smoke spewing from it and had to immediately flee under the danger of ashfall.” It was quite disheartening to civilian authorities and local government officials in Batangas and Cavite that with or without the additional funding of P221.4 million, Phivolcs could have done its job well if it had carried out the protocols of the late Punongbayan and the US Geological Survey before the Pinatubo eruption. House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez said that the huge amount was for the close monitoring of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and even tsunamis.

    The former Phivolcs chief had been alerted to Pinatubo’s idle rumblings by a steam cloud on the slope of the volcano observed by an Ayta tribe. Simon Bate of The Scientist recounts Punongbayan’s remarkable skill and grit during that critical time. “For 71 days, Phivolcs, with the help of an elite team from the US Geological Survey (USGS), began an intensive stint of volcanic watching, armed with the latest equipment and with an improved understanding of pre-eruption events and refined by studies of past events. On June 7, after counting 1,500 to 2,000 tremors, rising heat and steam clouds a day at Pinatubo along with shalowing of epicenters, Punongbayan knew that the magma was just sitting there, waiting to erupt.

    “Putting his reputation on the line he convinced civilian authorities that Pinatubo would erupt within 24 hours and he strongly advised the immediate evacuation to a 20km radius.

    More than 16,000 Ayta had already been moved out of Pinatubo. On June 10 at 5 a.m., the US Air Force began an evacuation of 14,000 Americans at the Clark Air Base. Thousands of Filipinos also packed their cars, jamming the two-lane road that led away from the seething volcano.” (Angeles City in Pampanga housed 300,000 residents.)

    “After a series of flare-ups, Mt. Pinatubo exploded on June 15 in a climactic eruption that deposited 10 to 20 inches of volcanic ash over a wide area. Earthquakes at 4.0 on the Richter scale shook the ground. Pyroclastic flows travelling at 80km per hour incinerated everything within a 15-kilometer radius of the mountain. Its eruption, with a force 10 times greater than that of Washington’s Mount Helens in 1980, marked a milestone for a science that had matured to the point of prediction for such an occurrence. And Pinatubo also marked the first time a team had surveyed on site to make that science or technology work by issuing a timely alert.”

    Geologists and the rest of the country will probably never know how many lives were saved by both technology and man’s ingenuity and zeal. More than 10,000 people lived in the zone of Pinatubo’s destruction.

    The proposed creation of the Department for Disaster Resilience is a temporal reaction to a faltering Phivolcs which enjoys P1.2 billion this year. Punongbayan had barely half of that giant budget outlay when he saved thousands from certain death and destruction through the Phivolcs’ intensive monitoring with only its available equipment and with his selfless and tireless supervision.

    The utter dissatisfaction with Renato Solidum and his complacent and under-trained seismologists should instead compel a re-organization at Phivolcs, along with a firmer operational control and logistical supervision of the DILG over all disaster-prone local government units. Phivolcs has just shown how to be an antidote to preparedness and resilience.

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