Friday, October 10, 2014

Inside the danger zone of Mayon Volcano

That fiery red lava trickling down the slopes of Mayon Volcano is a paradox.
Like a fireworks display, it keeps Albay villagers awake in the middle of the night. Some would even take a break from their favorite evening teleserye just to watch the volcano simmer.
For us locals, it is such a delight to behold—enchanting and mysterious. Yet at the same time. we know that behind the peerless beauty of Mayon, there is wrath and potential destruction.
The 2,462-meter volcano is restive again. And soon enough, a throng of domestic and foreign tourists will surely start flying in.

The world renowned Mayon volcano shows its perfect cone shape on October 7, 2014 near the Phivolcs monitoring station in Albay. The tranquil view almost hides the fact that the volcano is likely to erupt any day now. Allan Gatus
It brings me back to December of 2009. Thousands of volcano-watchers flocked into the province. Hotels were fully-booked.
There were almost no vacant tables at Small Talk Café, a popular local restaurant that serves its signature Pasta Mayon. Taxi drivers and car rental services were on round-the-clock operations.
Business boomed while waiting for the big bang. But it never came.
Lessons from the past
It wasn’t always like a fiesta.
During my coverage of the 2006 eruption for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, I met farmer Gregorio Abellano of Barangay Mabinit in Legazpi City. And he recounted his fears.
On Feb. 2, 1993, he said he heard what seemed like the engine of an airplane roaring overhead.
The volcano spewed hot rocks over his farm in Sitio Balagbag Na Bulod, which was not far away from the crater.
Abellano ran for his life, away from the “tuga” (rain of fire) and “uson” (swirling hot clouds) that descended swiftly on Mayon’s slopes.
Some 50 meters away, he found shelter inside a shallow hole he dug for his copra produce. But he wasn’t able to escape the searing heat that licked his skin. It caused major burns on his face and body, leaving a big scar and a painful memory.
But not everyone was as lucky as Abellano. A total of 79 farmers died in the 1993 eruption.

Lava flows from the crater of Mayon volcano as seen from Legazpi City, Albay on Wednesday, September 17, 2014. Lava continued to cascade down the Philippines most active volcano as authorities rushed to evacuate thousands ahead of a possible deadly eruption. AFP/Charism Sayat

Incredibly close
In 2006, Mt. Mayon’s lava trail broke records to be the longest in 30 years. It was so long it encroached the six-kilometer-radius permanent danger zone, where the farmlands are.
I was then a neophyte countryside journalist when I had the chance to have a close encounter with Mayon in its restive state. It was a risk that I took out of curiosity.
The goal of our climb was to reach the lava front or the edge of the lava trail. We got there after a few hours’ trek.
The lava front looked like a humongous mound of blazing soil with rocks and boulders. It was so hot we couldn’t come so near.
During the climb, there were times we could hear the volcano’s loud rumblings and feel the momentary ground tremors—signs of magma rising inside the volcano’s pipe.
The lava, which was as high as a four-storey building, was moving and slowly inching toward us. It burned and trampled the coconut trees that blocked its way.
I got back to base alive.
Cagsawa Ruins
The year 1814 is engraved in every Albayano’s mind. What could be Mayon’s most lethal eruption in recorded history happened that year.
None of us have lived in that era, but the tragic tale has been passed on through generations like tales of the Second World War.
The volcano belched dark ash and spewed pyroclastic materials that engulfed the town of Cagsawa. More than 2,000 people were believed to have perished.
The town church was buried and only its belfry remains standing to this day.
The belfry at Cagsawa Ruins at Barangay Busay in Daraga, Albay is what you’d normally see on postcards and history books.
But more than that, for the Albayanos, it is a standing reminder of Mayon’s fury that hides beneath its slopes.
Quiet eruption
At times, the devastation brought by Mayon doesn’t happen in a bang.
What state volcanologists called a “mild and quiet” eruption in 2006 claimed more than 800 lives. But the tragedy happened only four months after the first ash explosion in July.
For months, the volcano constantly spewed lava that were deposited on the volcano’s slopes. Thousands of families were evacuated, though the villages remained unharmed—until November came, when super typhoon Reming hit the province.
Rainwater swept an avalanche of volcanic debris from the slopes and gullies down to the villages—wiping off vulnerable communities.
Hundreds of people were buried under lahar and many of them have never been found.
Disaster protocols
Albayanos are known to be masters of disasters.
When Alert Level 3 was hoisted over Mt. Mayon by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) on the night of September 15, an evacuation plan was ready by dawn of Tuesday. 
Mandatory evacuation began in less than 24 hours and the evacuation target was hit within 48 hours.
Of course, temporary shelters have already been pre-designated while a disaster response protocol has been carefully designed to work even down to the village level.
The provincial government long ago formed the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (APSEMO). And through the years, it has refined its best practices disaster after disaster.
For a province often exposed to various calamities and hazards like Albay, preparedness has become a knee-jerk reaction.
Cruel irony
But Albayanos would easily forgive Mt. Mayon, even if the volcano has claimed thousands of lives.
When the lava cools down and the rumblings end, residents living near or within the danger zones would still go back to their villages, back to their normal lives.
They return to their farms on the fertile slopes of the volcano, because it’s their main source of living. It feeds them and their children.
So Albayanos are torn between hating a killer volcano and loving the same for its economic value and enthralling beauty—a bittersweet irony that sparks resilience.
Ephraim Aguilar grew up in Bicol. He was a regional correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He now works for GMA News as an executive producer for News TV LIVE.

This article was first published on, a collective blog and a passion project of nine news professionals from GMA Network.

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