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Danger zones around Mayon

Regional Director Claudio Yucot of the Bicol Office for Civil Defense sounded the alarm. Over the phone, he was emphatic and direct to the point. We chatted yesterday on the progress of monitoring the Mayon Volcano, now on Alert 3, a relatively higher level of volcanic unrest which developed at a fast pace only last week. He did not mince words: Mayon is going to erupt anytime. The explosion may be super mighty that the older generation of Bicolanos would remember the 1814 volcano eruption that destroyed the 16th century Franciscan church in Cagsawa, Albay, and buried the town itself. That was how the now-famous tourist spot, Cagsawa Ruins, became known today. Would there be another such catastrophe to happen anytime soon? From Alert Level 3 to Alert Level 4 out of the five levels? RD Yucot can only say, “Nobody knows, but it is possible anytime, sooner or later.”

That would be scary for outsiders of Bicol to hear. Earlier, on June 4, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) reported about earthquakes near Ragay, Camarines Sur, 155 kilometers away from Albay, and other tremors in quick succession in some parts of Bicol. Then, the Phivolcs declared Alert 1, then upwards to Alert 3 this week. That was the last straw. My high school batchmates, planning to meet me at Naga or Legazpi next week, have now called off the Bicol plan. Carole, a close friend based in California for almost three decades, yearned for this face-to-face reunion that the Pandemic cut short. But no regrets. Safety is of primordial concern for now. There will be a next time.

On the other hand, my friends from the Volcano Monitoring and Eruption Prediction Division of the Phivolcs in Quezon City are all eager to come to Albay, the center of the current volcano-watching and significant interest of study for academicians and scientists worldwide. The Mayon volcano is the most active of the Philippines’ 22 active volcanoes and the most beautiful because of its symmetrical, almost perfect cone shape. It is a most visited tourist destination. It is located around the Albay Gulf, which adds to its majestic setting that Bicolanos call proudly call Magayon, coupled with the local mythical story of Magayon (beautiful), daughter of Makusog (strong), in a place called Ibalon. Mayon has erupted 48 times since 1616.

That day we chatted, RD Yucot said the regional OCD was expecting the arrival of Secretary Renato Solidum, Jr. of the Department of Science and Technology and, most likely, the President himself. We had to cut short our conversation as RD Yucot was in the thick of preparing their office report presentation for the Secretary. The Phivolcs is under the DoST.

Evacuation is a part of life

The most challenging part of disaster response work is dealing with people who still believe living within or around the so-called danger zone is manageable and liveable. Or, is it coping with the reality that evacuating, resettling, and rehabilitating can also be a permanent challenge for local government units and national government agencies to sustain and resolve?

The danger zone is the six-kilometer radius around the crater. Yesterday, Albay Provincial LGU expanded it to a radius of seven kilometers, which means all residents in the danger zone need to evacuate ASAP because of the increased danger of volcanic activity. The government has now considered the six-kilometer radius zone a permanent danger zone, which means no more entry for people and livestock. But people have no other place to go except to flee all the time.

For RD Yucot, that is the most complex and daunting task. These barangays are in three cities and six municipalities, namely in Tabaco municipality: Oson, Mariroc, Comon, Magapo, Buang, Malilipot, San Roque, Calbayog, Santa Cruz and Canaway; in Ligao City is Baligang; in Santo Domingo are Fidel Surtida, Lidong, San Fernando and Santa Misericordia; in Camalig are Sua, Tumpa, Anoling, and Quirangay; in Daraga is Mi-isi; in Guinobatan are Doña Tomasa (Magatol), Muladbucad Pequeño, Muladbucad Grande and Masarawag; in Legazpi City are Mabinit, Buyuan, Matanag, Bonga, and Padang; in Bacacay is Bonga (Upper). There are 29 barangays involving more than 30,000 families to evacuate, resettle and rehabilitate.

Where, how, and when to evacuate? That is the regular job for our disaster response agencies and many humanitarian organizations in Bicol and anywhere in the Philippines whenever a disaster of humongous proportions hits the communities. RD Yucot said that the government is on top-level preparations to feed and secure the more than 15,000 individuals or 4,000 families in evacuation centers. For 30 days, the LGUs would take care of the need as part of government devolution from national to local governance, and then the NGAs take over. My immediate reaction was to ask, for how long can government sustain the food and other needs of thousands of families during the Mayon monitoring that may last up to six months or more?

Rose, 32, of the quarrying organization of Fidel Surtida in Sto Domingo, gave me a glimpse of life now and her family with 15 other families who evacuated last week and now staying inside a classroom at San Andres Elementary School in upland Sto. Domingo. Rose is one of the women leaders that the Tabang Bikol Movement is organizing for sustainable alternative livelihood away from quarrying through the Social Enterprise Development project with Mariners Polytechnic Colleges/Foundation (MPCF) and the Central Bicol State University in Agriculture (CBSUA). Since the age of three, evacuation has been her life. Her family’s constant fear and insecurity, with her father gone and a mother now elderly, is a shared life of thousands of families currently in evacuation centers in public schools for 15 days. Then, they leave, and the concerned NGAs transfer them elsewhere until Mayon calms down and normalizes.

TBM calls for a more strategic and sustainable approach to our danger zones.


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