Philippine authorities have urged a “total evacuation” of nearly half a million people near the capital Manila, after a volcano spewed ash up to nine miles (14 kilometers) into the air Sunday prompting warnings of a possible “explosive eruption.”
The Taal Volcano, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of the capital Manila on the island of Luzon, is one of the country’s most active.
Images showed streams of lava beginning to gush out the volcanic vent, the sky above still thick and dark with ash and steam.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) has raised the alert level to four, meaning an “explosive eruption” could happen in the coming hours or days. Its highest alert level is five, indicating an eruption is taking place.
Taal Volcano isn’t big, however it’s considered among the world’s most dangerous, owing to the number of people that live in its immediate vicinity, said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University.
PHIVOLCS has requested a “total evacuation” of everyone within a 17-kilometer (10.5 miles) radius around the volcano. This area, considered a volcanic danger zone, is home to more than 450,000 residents, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
As of Monday, more than 16,400 people had sought shelter in temporary evacuation centers set up by the authorities. The total number of evacuees is likely to be higher, however, with many people choosing to stay with family members and relatives in other parts of the country.
Federal authorities are helping the response and evacuation operation. The army sent 20 military vehicles and 120 personnel to help affected residents.
The secretary of national defence said helicopters were on standby to evacuate people.
The defence secretary also urged residents near the eruption to evacuate, and not to hesitate in leaving their homes. Aid organizations like the Red Cross are assisting on the ground by sending rescue vehicles and supplies.
There are 10 cities and municipalities surrounding the volcano, some lying outside that evacuation radius — and they are home to nearly 760,000 people, PHIVOLCS said.
The aftermath on Sunday show ash mixing with rain, creating a thick black sludge that blanketed cars, streets, and homes in some towns. Ash is even heavier than snow, meaning excessive pile-ups, especially when mixed with rain, can cause roofs to collapse.
Apart from immediate health hazards and structural damage, a potential eruption could also bring long-term consequences for the area’s economy.
The volcano is surrounded by a lake, which is a popular attraction — meaning many of the towns in the vicinity are tourism hot spots. There are several amusement parks, lakeside resorts and yacht clubs within the 17-kilometer evacuation zone.
The holiday town of Tagaytay, which lies close to the water’s edge, is a popular getaway for Manila residents who often take boats onto the lake and hike up the volcano.
It could also serve a severe blow to the many farmers and fishermen who live in the area and rely on the lake and its surrounding land for their livelihoods.
The volcano has seen powerful eruptions before — one eruption in 1754 lasted six months, and its deadliest eruption took 1,335 lives in 1911. It erupted again in 1965, killing 190 people, and continued to have four more minor eruptions in the years since.
Mariton Bornas, chief of volcano monitoring at PHIVOLCs, said that the agency had monitored tremors at the volcano as early as March 2019 — but they were surprised by the rapid speed of the eruption on Sunday.