MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Thousands of people were evacuated from villages around a rumbling volcano near the Philippine capital on Friday, but officials said they faced another dilemma to ensure shelter emergencies do not turn into epicenters of COVID-19 infections.
The alert was raised to three on a five-level scale after Taal Volcano threw a dark gray plume across the sky on Thursday. The five-minute steam and gas explosion was followed by four smaller emissions, but the volcano was generally calm on Friday, volcanologists said.
Level three means that “the magma is near or on the surface, and the activity could lead to a dangerous eruption within weeks,” according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. Level five means that a potentially fatal eruption is occurring that could endanger communities.
The agency has asked people to stay away from a small island in a picturesque lake where Taal is located and is considered a permanent danger zone with a number of nearby lakeside villages in the province. from Batangas to the south of Manila.
A Taal eruption last year displaced hundreds of thousands of people and briefly closed Manila International Airport. However, the head of the Volcanoes Agency, Renato Solidum, said it was too early to know whether the current unrest at the volcano will lead to a full-blown eruption.
Preventive evacuations that began Thursday evening concerned residents of five high-risk villages.
More than 14,000 people may need to be temporarily removed from the volcano, said Mark Timbal, spokesperson for the government disaster response agency.
City officials, however, faced an additional challenge in ensuring that emergency shelters, typically school buildings, basketball gymnasiums, and even Roman Catholic church grounds, did not become unfortunate. hot spots for coronaviruses. Displaced villagers were asked to wear face masks and were safely sheltered in separate tents, requiring much more space than in the days before the pandemic.
Most evacuation camps have also set up isolation zones in case someone starts showing symptoms of COVID-19.
“It’s doubly difficult now. Previously we would just ask people to rush to the evacuation centers and sneak as much as possible, ”said disaster response officer Junfrance De Villa from the town of Agoncillo, located opposite. from the lake of the Taal volcano island.
“Now we have to watch the numbers closely. We are doing everything to avoid traffic jams, ”De Villa told The Associated Press by telephone.
A neighboring town safely away from the troubled volcano could accommodate up to 12,000 displaced residents of Agoncillo in the pre-pandemic times, but could only house half of them now. A laid-back city of over 40,000 residents, Agoncillo has reported more than 170 cases of COVID-19, but only about a dozen remain ill. At least 11 residents have died, he said.
Taal (1,020 feet (311 meters), one of the smallest volcanoes in the world, erupted in January last year, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and sending clouds of ash to Manila , about 65 kilometers (40 miles) north, where the main airport was temporarily closed.
Heavy ash falls also buried an abandoned fishing community, which thrived for years in the shadow of Taal on an island in Lake Taal, and closed a popular area of tourist lodges, restaurants, spas and of wedding venues.
The Philippines lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, an area prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. A long-dormant volcano, Mount Pinatubo, exploded north of Manila in 1991 in one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, killing hundreds.
Associated Press reporter Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.