Philippine authorities were struggling Thursday to finish moving nearly 50,000 people to safety as the Mount Mayon volcano in the east of the country gave more warnings that it was about to erupt, local officials said.
However, many of those in danger refused to budge, officials said.
Authorities are determined to prevent any casualties if Mayon, the most active of the Philippines's 22 volcanoes, erupts. The central and local governments are quietly hoping to avoid a debacle similar to that in and around Manila in September and October, when a series of tropical storms and typhoons brought torrential rain.
Metro Manila's storm drains, many clogged with trash and overburdened in a city that has more than doubled in population in the past 30 years, to over 11 million people today, couldn't handle the downpours. Millions of Manila's residents live in shanty towns along river banks and flood canals and the resulting flooding and landslides killed at least 990 people and disrupted the lives of some 10 million. The disaster exposed shortcomings in the preparedness of the government and victims alike and an outpouring of national anger.
There may be bigger tests of disaster preparedness in the weeks to come if the current activity at Mayon builds towards a major eruption.
The government of Albay, the province some 200 miles southeast of Manila where Mayon is situated, ordered the evacuation of the danger zone, a mostly agricultural area, on Monday. By the middle of Thursday local time, military trucks had helped move at least 32,000 people to evacuation centers in schools and other buildings.
Authorities have also imposed a ban on anyone entering a 5-mile zone around Mayon.
The evacuation plan has been put to the test: When the volcano last erupted, in 2006, 30,000 people were moved to safety and no lives were lost. The approach drew on lessons from a 1993 eruption, which killed at least 77 people. Most of those who perished had refused to leave the danger zone, preferring to stay and protect their crops, livestock, and other possessions from looters.
The reluctance of some residents to leave the danger zone remains a problem this time round. The head of the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office, Cedric Daep, said some residents had refused to leave, but that they would be forced to comply with instructions to move out.
The unpredictability of the volcano means the refugees could remain in the centers for weeks. But the provincial chief of police, Senior Superintendent William Macavinta, has said the evacuation centers have enough food and water for only 18 days.
Local news media have reported that some centers lack adequate sanitation, presenting potential health risks for people living cheek-by-jowl.
Provincial Gov. Joey Salceda has said that he is prepared to ask for international aid, if necessary.
If the expected eruption turns out to be a big one, about 75,000 more people will have to be moved to safety, according to the local authorities, putting even further strain on the relief effort.
Even if Mayon erupts again without immediate loss of life, danger may persist. After the 2006 eruption, people returned to their homes around the volcano. A typhoon then dislodged tons of volcanic debris deposited on the slopes, causing landslides that killed an estimated 1,000 residents