Philippines: Thousands flee as volcano readies to blow

Mt Mayon has erupted at least 50 times in the last 500 years and appears ready to blow again at any time.

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    Albay, Philippines - A restive volcano on the brink of a major explosion has forced more than 37,000 people to flee their homes.

    Mount Mayon, about 500km southeast of the capital, Manila, has spewed ash and streamed lava since Sunday, and authorities are bracing for a major eruption.

    The local volcanology agency has hoisted the third of a five-tier alert warning system, which means the volcano may be ripe for a "magmatic" eruption in a matter of weeks, or even days.

    Mt Mayon - famous for its majestic, near-perfect cone shape - is among the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, having erupted at least 50 times in the last 500 years. In 1841, a blast buried an entire town and killed at least 1,200 people.

    People living within Mayon's six-kilometre radius - the so-called "permanent danger zone" - have been ordered to evacuate. Those living within 8km of the volcano are strongly urged to leave as well. Villagers 10km out are told to prepare to flee in case the volcano's activity intensifies.

    But some residents were unconcerned by the danger.

    "We have done this so many times, we have gotten used to it," said Divina Miranda while evacuating. She and her family are taking shelter in a schoolhouse in the town of Camalig. "We have nowhere else to go, so we just live with it."

    Divina and Rommel Miranda with their 6-month-old son, Aaron [JC Gotinga/Al Jazeera]

    A matter of poverty

    The Mirandas fled their village at the foot of Mt Mayon on Friday, after volcanologists detected increased activity and sent out a warning. Divina and her husband, Rommel, have lived all their lives in that village, even before the government demarcated a permanent danger zone.

    Why there are people still living on the volcano's slopes is a matter of poverty.

    "The government has housing projects for many of them, but they insist on returning to their homes near Mayon," said Camalig Mayor Maria Ahrdail Baldo. "They prefer to stick to the way of life they have known."

    Land near, or on, the volcano is relatively inexpensive and extremely fertile. Trees and shrubbery are in abundance for people's livestock, and the ground yields a bountiful harvest of rice and vegetables. That is why people keep coming back - even when the volcano is erupting.

    In Anoling village, Camalig Police Chief Inspector Darwin Asejo leads patrols to ensure villagers stay away. He told Al Jazeera, some people sneak into the danger zone to check on their livestock and guard their homes against looters. 

    "We aim for zero casualties. That means keeping people out of here, even if we have to forcibly extricate them," Asejo said. 

    Albay province lies along the Philippines' Pacific coast and the Pacific "Ring of Fire", making it prone to both typhoons and volcanic eruptions.

    Despite its precarious situation, Albay boasts of a low casualty count from natural disasters, owing to the local government's focus on preparation and mitigating their effect.

    In 2014, authorities managed to house thousands of people in evacuation centres for three months during Mayon's prolonged eruption. Evacuees were clamouring to return to their homes but authorities strictly prohibited them from doing so.

    Not a single death was recorded then.

    This gorge in Anoling village was formed by volcanic material that flowed from Mt Mayon [JC Gotinga/Al Jazeera]

    Tough situation 

    The moment the Mirandas were told to evacuate, they took heed instantly, despite knowing the difficulty that lay before them. At the schoolhouse, Divina, Rommel and their four children have only a corner of a classroom to themselves. They are not allowed to cook their own food or take livestock with them.

    "We have very little money to buy food in the town. We have no jobs here. Back home, no one is minding our chickens. The ash from the volcano will ruin our vegetable plot," Rommel said while lulling his 6-month-old son, Aaron, to sleep.

    But they are not complaining, even if their ordeal can drag on for a long time. Mt Mayon has been known to erupt continually for months before losing steam.

    "It is a tough situation. We are cramped and we inhale ash from the volcano," said Divina, her tone despondent. "Of course, we will only go home when it is really safe. So until then, we just have to bear with it." 

    The local government has declared the province to be in a "state of calamity", which authorises the release and use of 90 million pesos ($1.8m) for relief efforts. For evacuees, that means rations of food, toiletries, and other basic needs, which they hope will last until the volcano quiets down.

    Smoke plumes rise off of Mt Mayon as the volcano spews out lava that smoulders in the rain [JC Gotinga/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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