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Philippine volcano shows signs of calming, but danger remains

MANILA: An elderly woman is helped by a relative at an evacuation centre for families displaced by the eruption of the Taal volcano, at the Dona Tiburcia Carpio Malvar elementary school in Tanauan yesterday. – AFP

MANILA: A Philippine volcano that has been spewing ash for days appeared to be calming down yesterday, but seismologists said the danger of an eruption remained high and authorities warned evacuees not to return to their homes. Some residents took advantage of what they perceived as a lull in the activity of Taal, one of country’s most active and deadliest volcanoes, to return home even though a 14 km (nine mile) exclusion zone remained in place.

“We are analyzing what this seeming calm of the volcano means,” Maria Antonia Bornas, chief science research specialist at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), told reporters. The lake inside Taal has dried up, Bornas said, which was to be expected since it began spewing lava fountains a day after it shot giant clouds of ash miles into the air on Sunday. Phivolcs said volcanic activity had “generally waned to weak emission of steam-laden plumes”. Even so, it had recorded more than 100 tremors since Wednesday, meaning magma was still rising.

More than 53,000 residents have abandoned their homes around Taal to take shelter in evacuation centres, but thousands more are refusing to leave or have already drifted back to check on their animals and possessions. Power has been restored in some areas in nearby Tagaytay city where business owners were cleaning away the ash and preparing to start trading again. Although Taal is one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes at only 311 meters (1,020 feet) high, it can be deadly. One eruption killed more than 1,300 people in 1911.

Taal has erupted more than 30 times in the past five centuries, with the most recent in 1977. The Philippines lies on the “Ring of Fire”, a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes. At the crack of dawn yesterday, Manolito Malaluan set out with a band of rescuers to ferry to safety two horses trapped on a Philippine island where a volcano has been spewing ash for days.

They took a motorboat across a lake, defying official warnings to stay out of a danger zone around the Taal volcano, one of the most active in the southeast Asian nation, as they scrambled to reach the animals. “Both of them were neighing when they saw me,” Malaluan, 23, told Reuters, after reaching safer ground with his horses, named Cristina and Bakasan. “They were happy because I came back.”

More than 57,000 people have abandoned homes on the volcanic island and its environs, usually thronged by tourists, but many have also drifted back to check on animals and possessions. Authorities have thrown a 14-km (9-mile) exclusion zone around the volcano, with experts warning that an eruption could bring a devastating rain of rocks and magma and unleash a tsunami in the surrounding lake. The horses were among 3,000 living on the island, most earning money for their owners by carrying tourists to the rim of the volcano crater.

Uncertain future
As their sole means of livelihood, many islanders depend on the survival of the animals, but the future looks uncertain. “We won’t have food on our tables if not for them,” said Jun Despededa, 21, who used water from the lake to scrub volcanic ash from his horse’s white coat. “I don’t know what I would do now after what happened.”

About 1,000 horses, as well as cows, goats and pigs were among the animals left behind by residents scurrying to safer areas for fear of a bigger eruption. One horse owner urged authorities to allow the rescue of as many animals as possible, taking advantage of what appeared to be a lull in volcano activity, but was rebuffed by the coast guard patrolling the lake. Horses were among the more than 70 animals brought to safety since Wednesday by another group of rescuers, led by a police maritime unit, but it has since been told to halt its activities, because of the eruption threat.

Many of the horses that had made it out looked exhausted and hungry, with at least one barely able to stand. While Taal appeared to be calming down on Thursday, seismologists said the danger of an eruption remained high and authorities warned evacuees to stay away.

The Philippines lies on the “Ring of Fire,” a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes. One of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, Taal has erupted more than 30 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 1977. An eruption in 1911 killed more than 1,300 people and one in 1754 lasted for six months. – Reuters

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