Philippine volcano simmers, officials brace for long crisis

AGONCILLO, PHILIPPINES (AP) — Philippine officials said they are bracing for a long crisis whether the Taal volcano erupts more disastrously or simmers precariously for weeks or months, as massive numbers of displaced villagers languish in emergency shelters.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said more than 900 villagers who fell ill have been treated, mostly for exposure to volcanic ash, in evacuation sites since the volcano began erupting in Batangas province.

About 125,000 people fled from ash-blanketed villages and crammed into hundreds of emergency centres in Batangas alone and many others took shelter in relatives’ homes, disaster-response officials said, appealing for masks, bottled water, portable toilets, food and sleeping mats.

“It’s really massive because you’re talking of more or less 100,000 evacuees in evacuation centres, so the infrastructure and services needed are really huge,” Duque said. “This is not going to be for the short term, but for the medium if not long term.”

The 311-metre-high Taal is one of the world’s smallest but the second-most restive of about two dozen active Philippine volcanoes. It has remained at alert level 4, the second-highest warning, indicating a hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours or days.

Police and military help push a vehicle along a road covered in volcanic ash at a village beside Taal volcano where residents have evacuated to safer ground in Agoncillo, Batangas province, southern Philippines. PHOTO: AP

Duque said hundreds of villagers have been treated for respiratory infections, hypertension, diarrhea, skin lesions, flu and coughs in evacuation centres. About 300,000 masks, including those from regions unaffected by the volcanic eruption, have been sent to calamity-hit areas.

The government’s main disaster-response agency will hold a meeting to discuss concerns, including hygiene in evacuation camps, Duque said. He sought the help of the military to build latrines and repair toilets in emergency shelters, mostly school buildings.

In the hard-hit town of Agoncillo, Mayor Daniel Reyes said all 42,000 residents abandoned their homes, including 8,000 who are now encamped in evacuation centres and need food, water and aid.

“They rushed out of their homes without bringing anything, so they will really be dependent on our help,” Reyes said.

Agoncillo still has about two weeks worth of food, water and aid packs and will need help from the provincial and national governments when supplies get depleted, he said. While tending to the thousands of displaced residents, Reyes said he and other officials were preparing contingency plans in case Taal erupts violently.

“There is a great possibility that it will erupt,” Reyes said, citing a briefing by government volcano experts.

The Philippines lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a string of faults around the ocean basin where many ofthe world’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.