Tens of thousands face bleak future under the Taal volcano in the Philippines

A youth steers a canoe while the volcano spews ash behind him. The Philippines is on alert for an ‘explosive eruption’ of the volcano south of Manila. Photo: AFP. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

SANTO TOMAS, Jan 15, 2020, The Straits Times. Ms Estela Mendoza was looking forward to a full harvest of corn by month’s end when a volcano, which for most of her life had been a majestic, but silent, presence, roared back to life, The Straits Times reported.

In a matter of hours, she saw her husband’s entire crop blanketed with a thick layer of ash and mud as the volcano, Taal, spewed massive columns of earth and debris on a clear Sunday (Jan 12) afternoon.

In two days, Ms Mendoza, 35, and her clan of over 20 had fled her village to a chapel two hours away with nothing but the clothes on their back.

The chapel, built as part of a shrine honouring the mystic saint Padre Pio, in Santo Tomas town, has since Monday been welcoming Ms Mendoza’s clan and hundreds of other evacuees from all across Batangas province, south of the capital Manila.

There are over 35,000 more scattered in dozens of evacuation centres around Taal.

Most, like Ms Mendoza, are staring at a bleak future.

“We have nothing left. Even after all this has passed, we’ll still find ourselves saddled with a huge debt,” she said.

She said her husband borrowed over 100,000 pesos (S$2,663) to buy seed and fertiliser, and hire tractors and farm hands.

Ms Judy Borras, 32, lives in the same village in Tanauan town, in Batangas, as Ms Mendoza.

She too fled to the Padre Pio chapel with her two-month-old son and five other children.

But she counts herself lucky. Her husband is still drawing a salary as a driver for meat-processing firm Monterey.

She said she could opt to return home.

“But there’s no electricity and water there. It’s always raining ash, and the ground is always shaking,” she said.

For now, she said, the evacuation centre is what’s best for her baby.

“We have food and water here. We have a place to sleep. People are coming with clothes. They said my baby will be getting powdered milk,” she said

But for most of those living in her village, the land has been their sole provider.

Ms Erlinda Mendoza, 62, said she earned as much as 12,000 pesos a month from a vegetable garden she was tending with her 74-year-old aunt.

“That’s gone now,” she said.

She said all her other kin also relied on farming for their income.

So that they would not lose everything, her husband and in-laws have been risking life and limb by returning to their village every other day to feed what remained of their livestock.

The risk is real.

Government seismologists and geologists have warned that Taal, in the coming days or months, could still belch superheated clouds, ash, rocks and other debris that could skid over water and travel at high speed.

There is little chance of surviving for anyone caught in its path. In 1911, over 1,300 died because they could not run away fast enough.

Yet, despite the threat, many who had already fled no-go zones were sneaking back to their villages to check on their homes and farm animals.

On an ash-covered highway in Agoncillo town, an old woman carrying a sack of animal feed was pleading with police to let her go back to her home so she could feed her livestock.

Fishermen were seen scraping mud from their boats on the shores of Talisay town and preparing to cross a lake and return to their village right under Taal’s restive crater to retrieve their horses.

In neighbouring San Nicolas, Mayor Lester de Sagun was letting the town’s inhabitants to return, but only briefly to check on their properties.

He said rumours swirled that thieves were sneaking into the town to steal farm animals.

He said he only had 20 policemen to patrol roads leading to the town.

Police cordoned off Agoncillo and Talisay on Tuesday, and were scouring for stragglers.

Father Froilan Carreon Jr, 38, assistant parish priest at the Padre Pio chapel, said those overseeing the evacuation centre cannot prevent anyone from heading back to their village.

But he said the best thing for them right now would be to stay put.

He said there were currently 250 evacuees inside the chapel, and they could attend to another 250.

Donations of food, water, toiletries, clothes, beddings and other essentials were pouring in, he said.

“We have enough to keep everyone comfortable for at least five days,” he said.

The chapel’s facilities are robust enough to keep hosting evacuees for over a month.

“We’re just hoping donations will continue, even when this isn’t on everyone’s mind any more,” he said.

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