Displaced Filipinos fear catastrophic volcano eruption on anniversary


LEGAZPI CITY: Mayon Volcano has been erupting since January 13, forcing more than 80,000 Filipinos to flee their homes in three cities and six towns in Albay province. On February 1, it will be 204 years since its most destructive eruption, and many fear that history will repeat itself.

Watching her two children play outside a makeshift, roadside hut in the eastern Philippine village of Calayucay, Edna Valladolid could not mask her anxiety.

The 38-year-old mother has lived here with her family since Mayon Volcano erupted two weeks ago, and though she has experienced more than five eruptions of the cone-shaped volcano since she was a child, she had grown more nervous.

“I used to roam around the rice fields with my girlfriends while Mayon was erupting because it’s such a beautiful sight,” Valladolid said. “But now, I have my children to think about.”

Mayon Volcano in the eastern Philippines is the country’s most active volcano, having erupted more than 50 times since 1616. The last deadly eruption was in May 2013, when five hikers were killed and seven people injured in that incident.

Valladolid said the timing of Mayon’s current eruption was a cause for concern among tens of thousands of displaced residents, who were waiting to see “a one-time, big-time explosion” could occur.

Their fears have intensified with the approach of February 1, the date of Mayon’s most destructive eruption in 1814, when it buried an entire town and killed 1,200 people.

“What if that’s repeated?” she asked, rubbing her arms as goose bumps swept over them. “It’s a scary thought.”

More than 80,000 people have fled their homes in three cities and six towns in Albay since Mayon woke on January 13 after four years of slumber. Since then, the volcano has been regularly belching out hot gasses, thick ash, and fiery lava.

The volcano’s activity appeared to have eased over the weekend amid non-stop rains, which triggered volcanic mudflows, but scientists said the level of agitation was still high.

Displaced residents have been staying in public school classrooms, tents and other makeshift shelters outside of a 9-kilometre radius from the volcano’s crater.

Several families share one classroom of about 30 square metres, with one bathroom for as many as 50 people. Clothes are hung to dry on walls, while some evacuees have set up small stores outside the classrooms.

Some families opted to set up tents or makeshift huts along a hilly road in Santo Domingo town, to avoid the congestion and to have privacy.

Marlyn Balunso, a 27-year-old mother of two, is among those who set up a small hut along the road, which she shares with about 10 family members.

Balunso said she has not slept well since she learned that there will be a super blue moon eclipse on January 31, just one day before the 204th anniversary of the 1814 eruption.

“Everyone’s afraid of the blue moon eclipse and the anniversary of the worst eruption on February 1,” she said, cradling her six-month-old son outside a temporary shelter they built along a road in Santo Domingo town.

Scientists at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) have rejected the residents’ fears.

“Those things have nothing to do with the volcano’s eruption,” said Paul Alanis, science research specialist at Phivolcs. “If a volcano is primed for the eruption, it will erupt regardless of the time or the occasion.”

Alanis said that while the eclipse might have an effect on the volcano’s activity, it will be negligible.

“Based on our studies, the eclipse will have no significant effect since the volcano is already erupting,” he said.

Phivolcs warned it could take up to one month before Mayon calms down. The volcano’s activity has so far been a quiet but continuous emission of lava, but a more hazardous eruption was still possible.

On Monday, boulders as big as cars were observed cascading down the slopes of Mayon, while the volcano ejected lava fountain as high as 200 metres and ash plumes as far as 1.5 kilometres into the air, Phivolcs said.

Sporadic lava fountains and ash ejections were also monitored throughout Tuesday, the agency said.