‘No man’s land’: Philippines volcano displaced fear future

Taal Volcano has cloaked tourist-dependent communities in ash and residents fear they have nothing to return to.

Batangas, Philippines – Marilyn La Luz had always known that Taal Volcano Island was a danger zone, but she never thought of leaving.

Her parents lived there all their lives and she grew up on its lower slopes amid patches of lush greenery, frolicking horses and a view of Taal Volcano’s crater just a few kilometres away through an easy climb.

“We lived in paradise. Everyone who comes to Taal Volcano even says so,” she said. 

It was a paradise that drew in thousands of tourists and ensured a comfortable income for 32-year-old La Luz who worked as a tour guide.

She would make 350 Philippine pesos (about $8) for every tour she booked. On average, she could book about two trips in a day.

But it was the tips of the foreign tourists that were most lucrative.

“Tourists tip in dollars – sometimes $10 or $20. The Americans are the best tippers because I think tipping is really part of their culture. Once a guest heard it was my birthday on the day of our tour and gave me $100.”

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Thousands of people are now living in evacuation centres with little idea of how long they will have to be there [Ana Santos/Al Jazeera]

Now in an evacuation centre, La Luz cannot help but think about all that she and her family lost when Taal Volcano began erupting on Sunday after more than 40 years of being dormant.

‘No man’s land’

Plumes of smoke that burst out of Taal dumped volcanic ash – fine particles of rock and glass fragments that are denser than snow – on La Luz’s beloved paradise and turned it into a wasteland.

Mark Timbal, spokesman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council in the Philippines, said an aerial inspection confirmed that vegetation and animal life on the volcano island was dead, burned by the heat.

“It is now a no man’s land. It’s like heaven and earth fell on it.” 

Frequent and intensifying volcanic earthquakes and road cracks called “fissures” prompted the authorities to begin forced evacuations to move an estimate 300,000 residents living within the 14-kilometre (8.6-mile) “danger zone” around Taal Volcano to safer ground.

“What we are observing now, the [volcanic] earthquakes and the fissures [road cracks] are signs that magma is still rising in Taal,” Mariton Bornas head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology [PhlVolcs] told the media on Tuesday. “It has opened up. If there is magma coming from beneath, it will quickly ascend. There are no more blockages.” 

In some towns in the province of Batangas, some 25km (15 miles) away from Taal Volcano, road cracks have destroyed some homes.

The volcano has been on alert level one since last year, but PhiVolcs raised the level to four last Sunday warning that a “hazardous eruption” was possible within hours or days. The highest alert level is five.

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Residents living near the erupting Taal Volcano evacuated after it began to send plumes of ash and steam into the sky on Sunday [Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

Authorities are preparing for two extreme worst-case scenarios: One where the eruption could take place over a few days and another where the eruption lasts for weeks.

“It could be short, it could be long,” PhiVolcs volcano expert Bornas said, comparing Taal’s most recent volcanic activity with previous eruptions.

In 1911, Taal erupted over a period of three days in January. In 1754, it was drawn out over a period of seven months.

State of limbo

Uro Masambeque, 82, is among hundreds of people – from the very young to the very old – in an emergency shelter set up in the classrooms of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Batangas.

Masambeque has Alzheimer’s and finds it hard to move on his own.

Before lying down on the floor for a nap with his 80-year-old wife, Lucy, his daughter, Rhodora, had to help him unfold his limbs and rest his head. 

“It’s really hard for us here, especially him. He needs adult diapers and vitamins,” Rhodora said.

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Uro Masambeque, 82, who has Alzheimer’s tries to get some rest in the classrooms of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, which have been turned into an emergency shelter. [Ana Santos/Al Jazeera]

With so much uncertainty over the volcano, it is unclear when they might be able to return home.

“Many people will have nothing to go back to after this. We’re not sure what kind of assistance we can give them in the case of prolonged displacement,” said Junn Mertola, a village chief in Alitagtag, one of the areas where the government enforced a forced evacuation on Tuesday.

“Maybe the local government can help out for a month. More than that, we would really need to ask the private sector for support,” Mertola added.

More than 700 people have made the Batangas evacuation centre their home since last Sunday.

Edna Sanchez, mayor of Santo Tomas, the town where the centre is located, said the multi-storey building previously sheltered evacuees during Typhoon Tisoy (Kammuri) in early December last year.

But despite its name and purpose – to support evacuees during times of emergency – the building is minimally equipped. Evacuees claim a corner or a small patch on the floor to lay out flattened cardboard covered with mats or flimsy bedsheets. There are just four toilets for all the evacuees, and showers need to be taken outside near the building’s water tank.

The building resembles the classrooms and gymnasiums that are by default quickly converted into temporary shelters during times of disaster.

“We had to prioritise purchasing trucks and rescue equipment. Our next priority will be to purchase other things like beddings,” said Sanchez who added that they were caught off-guard by the number of people who needed assistance.

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Families while away the time at evacuation centres with the volcano’s continued activity making it too dangerous to return [Ana Santos/Al Jazeera]

Still reeling from multiple natural disasters that pummelled the Philippines last December, Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Ano earlier issued a statement appealing to the public to “donate clean drinking water, food, emergency medicines and other essentials” to the evacuees through the local government or department of social welfare.

Government under fire

Online, Filipinos have criticised Ano for passing on the government’s responsibility to private citizens. Some pointed out that the Calamity Fund was cut by 11 billion Philippine pesos ($216 million) in last year’s budget. The fund is designed to be used for immediate disaster relief and repair.

On Tuesday, Grace Poe, an independent senator, reiterated her call for the creation of the Department of Disaster Resilience and Emergency Management which would streamline the different components of emergency response under one governing body.

This would give equal focus on all aspects of emergency response including rehabilitation “which is usually forgotten”, said Poe.

With no sense of when, or if ever she might be able to return, La Luz is worried about the future.

Her entire family had built their livelihood around Taal Volcano.

As a tour guide, she brought in guests to the restaurant where her 62-year-old mother, Cristeta, supplied fish and vegetables. Her brother owned horses they rented out to tourists who opted to make the trek on four legs rather than walk.

“We won’t have anything to go back to,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera