4,000 evacuees fall ill; Phivolcs note weakening Taal activity
Nearly 4,000 people who fled their villages when Taal Volcano erupted two weeks ago have fallen ill in evacuation centers in Batangas and Cavite provinces, the Department of Health (DOH) reported on Wednesday, as the country’s seismological agency announced that the volcano’s activity continued to weaken, giving rise to the possibility of lowering the alert level and many evacuees being allowed to go back home.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said it would not recommend that all the evacuees be allowed to return home because of the high possibility of another eruption.
Phivolcs maintains the alert level on Taal at 4, a notch below a hazardous explosive eruption.
“If we lower the alert level, there are some who may return to their homes. But definitely, there will be others who should not return,” Maria Antonia Bornas, chief of Phivolcs’ volcano monitoring and eruption division, told reporters.
Volcano Island off-limits
“We still need to further discuss this with the local government[s],” she said, “but we agreed that Taal Volcano Island is definitely off-limits.”
Although Volcano Island is a permanent danger zone, it was home to as many as 8,000 people.
All of them and tens of thousands more from towns on the rim of Taal Lake that are within a 14-kilometer radius danger zone have been jamming evacuation centers in Batangas, Cavite and Laguna provinces since the volcano suddenly came to life on Jan. 12.
The congestion in the shelters has given rise to illnesses over the past two weeks. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told reporters on Wednesday that 3,773 evacuees had sought medical attention during that time.
“These are common illnesses for which consultations were sought—fever, cough and colds,” Duque said.
Other illnesses recorded were hypertension among older evacuees and diarrhea, which had gone down as of Tuesday.
The DOH has also recorded minor injuries, as well as eye irritation and skin diseases caused by volcanic ash.
Duque said the department had also begun immunizing the evacuees, especially the children.
The government aims to “bring the evacuees back to [normality] as soon as possible,” he said.
“But that is easier said than done. It will all depend on what the Phivolcs will say over the next few days about the status of the Taal Volcano,” Duque said.
Aerial observation of Volcano Island in the past few days has shown a dramatic change in Taal’s landscape. The once lush slopes dotted with houses have been transformed into a gray desert. The government has said it is now working on a plan to permanently relocate the families that have been evacuated from the island and turn it into what officials have called a no man’s land.
Phivolcs’ Bornas said the standard procedure required at least a two-week continuous downward trend in volcanic activity before the alert level could be lowered.
She cited Mayon Volcano in Albay province: When the alert level was lowered to 3, people were still prohibited from going into the permanent danger zone and a 7-km extended danger zone in the volcano’s southeastern sector.
In the case of Taal, Bornas said Phivolcs might reduce the 14-km danger zone once the alert level was lowered.
But it doesn’t mean that all is already safe. “Those who will return should be prepared to evacuate every day and in a moment’s notice for another possible eruption,” Bornas said.
Between Tuesday morning and Wednesday morning, Phivolcs observed thin plumes of steam rising from the main crater 50 to 500 meters into the sky.
Less sulfur dioxide emission was also observed, but Bornas said this could be due to blockage in the vents.
Significantly weaker earthquakes were also recorded, which volcanologists said meant magma had already risen to the surface.
“It’s actually a dilemma how we will interpret the magma that has risen and caused the fissures and inflation in the Taal region,” Bornas said.
Earlier, Phivolcs said the deformation of the ground meant magma was already in place and a big blast could happen any time. —WITH A REPORT FROM AFP
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