Philippines Mayon volcano eruption: evacuees face a long wait

The Philippines Mayon volcano eruption, expected any day now, could pose lingering danger and keep farmers off their land for months. Many have sneaked back, only to be evacuated again.

Mike Alquinto/AP
Soldiers, wearing Santa hats, distribute toys to children evacuees at an evacuation center in Legazpi city, Albay province, about 500 kilometers southeast of Manila, Philippines, Tuesday.
Bullit Marquez/AP
Mayon volcano spews ash anew in a mild eruption as viewed from Legazpi city in Albay province, 500 kilometers southeast of Manila, Philippines, Tuesday.

Tens of thousands of refugees from the area around the Mount Mayon volcano face an anxious Christmas in evacuation centers. Their lives are safe, but they can now only watch and pray that an eruption will not destroy their livelihoods.

Residents from the eastern Philippines could face weeks or even months away from their land, leaving their homes unguarded and fields untended. Officials have learned from previous eruptions of Mayon and other volcanoes in the Philippines: A quick return is not the safest course.

"Will this activity last for months? Yes. In 2006, it emitted ash and oozed lava for two months," says Renato Solidum, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology based in Manila.

Danger could endure for months

For days, volcano has been spurting ash into the air, spewing lava down its slopes, and rumbling audibly. All the warning signs of an eruption are there, but scientists cannot predict when it will occur. Scientists have said the eruption could be hazardous, including pyroclastic flows – currents of superheated volcanic ash and debris that shoot down the mountainside, incinerating everything in their path.

Even after Mayon quiets down, danger may persist. After the most recent eruption, in 2006, refugees returned home thinking they were safe. But soon afterward a typhoon washed volcanic debris accumulated on the mountain down its slopes, creating rivers of mud and rock that killed an estimated 1,000 people.

The authorities said they were striving to complete the evacuation of the danger zone within a five-mile radius of Mayon, and that about 45,000 residents of the zone were now in evacuation centers.

But officials said the operation had been difficult, because of the reluctance of the residents to leave the fertile plains around the mountain, where their crops and livestock thrive, earning them a living that plenty of other Filipino farmers would envy.

Food, water, and a little Christmas spirit

The refugees are now crowded into school buildings. There are up to 100 people in each classroom, but they have sufficient shelter, food, and water, and medical care is on hand, officials say.

Relief workers have been trying to bring the refugees some Christmas cheer. The Philippines is a predominantly Christian country, so some evacuation centers have seasonal decorations, while social workers have been organizing parties and children’s games, and the provincial government has promised supplies of special Christmas food, officials say.

But for some refugees, the temptation to go home has already been too great, despite the danger.

The governor of the province of Albay, Joey Salceda, has spoken of playing a cat-and-mouse game with residents, some of whom have sneaked back into the danger zone several times, only to be removed each time. They manage to return in spite of a military and police cordon around what is supposed to be a closed area.

As the weeks pass, the temptation is likely to increase.

"I know that they will want to return home," said Mr. Salceda. "If I find them in the danger zone I will bring them back to the safety of the evacuation centers because we cannot give up on them, and certainly the provincial government is not giving up on the goal of zero casualties."

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