Taal Volcano Eruption in the Philippines is Looking Bad, with Worse to Come

Donald Kirk
Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Taal Volcano in the Philippines, rising more than 1,000 feet above a crater lake 30 miles south of Manila, could erupt in full force at any time. Already it’s been shooting geysers of ash half a mile high for more than three days, coating roads, cars, plants, animals and just about everything else all the way to the capital. 

Fissures were seen on nearby rocks amid fears an explosion might send streams of red-hot magma out of the volcano after lava already had burst from its core when it first exploded Sunday. 

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Renato Solidum, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, placed the volcano on alert level 4 for “hazardous eruption possible in hours to days,” warning those who had left the area to stay away before the volcano reaches level 5 for “hazardous eruption.”

In the popular resort town of Tagaytay, on the long ridgeline overlooking the crater lake and the volcano island in the middle, shops and restaurants normally crowded with tourists are deserted. Residents, defying official advice, return hurriedly, inspecting property already blanketed by ash that has been turned to heavy mud by the rain. 

“They don’t have water and electricity in Tagaytay,” said Patrick Tumale after venturing up the ash-and-mud-covered road on his motorcycle for a look across the crater lake. “They have been waiting for two days for the firetruck to supply some water.” 

Nor was there electrical power despite assurances that the electric company was “working on it.” While waiting for power, Tumale said he “spotted some restaurants letting people charge their phone using a gasoline generator and providing free lugaw, which is like a rice soup.” (Tumale runs a small restaurant in the provincial capital of Santa Rosa on the expressway to Manila.) He also saw motorcyclists like himself “handing out water and masks to random people” while “the only business that was open was a fruit market.” 

An eyewitness described the scene as the volcano erupted.

“Traffic slowed as motorists stopped to take photos of the billowing smoke from the crater,”  Arlene Lazaro-Gan wrote in the Philippine Inquirer. “What started as a spectacle unfolded into a nightmare. The air started to smell funny. The clouds darkened and lightning started to shoot up in all directions from the volcano. Everyone scrambled to safety and got in their cars.”

The scene quickly worsened as “the sky darkened into night” and “bits of ashfall that weren’t visible started to mix with rainwater,” she wrote. “Soon, my windshield wipers screeched —I was wiping mud. It had gone dark. I was still stuck in traffic.”

The Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, wearing a mask in a town safely out of range of any eruption, declared the region “a disaster area” regardless of whether the crisis “grows into a big explosion or simmers down” and told people to stay away.

Such warnings, however, often go unheeded.

On the volcano’s island, the scene was desperate as farm animals died and tour guides worried about the horses that carried visitors to the rim of the volcano. Defying orders to stay away, some men rescued mud-caked horses, loading them on to small boats and taking them to relative safety.

Returning from Tagaytay, Tumale saw orchards and farmland devastated by ash and sulfurous fumes.  As the ash spread, motor vehicle assembly lines and a soft-drink bottling plant had to suspend operations in an industrial zone on the way to Santa Rosa.

In the nearby town of Nuvali,  the Technopark entertainment area “is currently closed although they have generators for electricity,” Tumale reported. Feeding the red and black carp in the pond there is a prime attraction. “I’m suspecting that most of the fish are dead already because of the sulfur chemical from ashfall,” said Tumale. 

Although some of the rumbling has eased over the last few hours, fears persist that Taal will explode, and the signs that the crisis is easing could turn into a trap for thousands of people determined to return to their homes.

Taal has been blowing up every so often for centuries in a country long famous, or infamous, for its active volcanoes.

Hundreds died in the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, 60 miles northwest of Manila, which brought about the closure of Clark Air Base and eventually the end of what had been a massive U.S. Air Force presence there.

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The Mayon volcano, 300 miles southeast of Manila, is still active, spurting smoke and fire visible from an observation zone 10 miles away across a valley.

As Taal belched and rumbled and poured ash into the air, banks and schools closed their doors and business slowed or ceased, even in Manila, as airlines cancelled and postponed hundreds of flights. Miraculously, no one has been killed except for one truck driver whose vehicle slid off a muddy road.

At home in Nuvali, a fashionable community with modern office buildings and shopping centers, Carlos Conde, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said, “Yes, the house, the garden, the car were all covered in ash.” But he and his family were unscathed. 

“We're good, although we have to evacuate,” said Conde. “Cleanup is going to be a bitch!”

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