Philippine volcano spreads misery

Merlinda Villanueva has not been getting much sleep since she and her family fled their home when one of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes began erupting last weekend.
The 56-year-old grandmother of four children knows no other home but Taal Volcano island, which is located in the middle of a lake in Batangas province, 66 kilometres south of Manila.
“We know there is danger because it’s an active volcano,” she said as her grandchildren played with donated toys in an evacuation centre in the town of Malvar, away from the danger zone.
“But it’s our home and it provides a good source of livelihood for us,” she added. Villanueva is among hundreds of residents on Taal Volcano island and surrounding towns who earn a living guiding tourists around the picturesque destination.
According to government statistics, more than 11,000 local and foreign tourists visit cities and towns around the Taal Volcano every day. Many of them take the tour to hike to a ridge view deck.
Tourists can view the stunning main crater lake with its scenic green waters and a smaller island in the middle called Vulcan Point after hiking for about one hour.
They can also take a horse ride to the ridge, where stalls sell snacks, drinks, souvenirs and other trinkets.
The volcano and the lake also offer a charming backdrop for many weddings from nearby Tagaytay City, a popular weekend getaway from Manila.
Iza and Jezreel Autor, a 30-year-old couple, were getting married in a garden venue in Tagaytay City on Sunday, the day Taal began erupting.
“We didn’t even notice it because I think that was the moment we were saying ‘I do’ at the ceremony,” Iza said.
The reception was cut short, as many of the 100 guests had to leave quickly to flee the ash. Iza also suffered an allergic reaction to the ash that made her face turn red and puffy.
“We’re happy that our wedding day has become a memorable and historical moment, but we’re also very sad that many have been affected,” she said.
The main crater lake has dried up in the eruption, and the once-lush island has become a wasteland, with houses, plants, fields and other areas covered in thick gray ash.
The air is heavy with sulphur dioxide, while carcasses of dead animals were found buried in ash or floating at the shore.
“It’s painful to see that what used to be such a beautiful site is now a desert,” Villanueva said. “My house, which was just completed seven months ago, is buried in ash.”
“There is nothing left,” she added.
Authorities have ordered a lock down in at least nine towns around Taal. The electricity and water supply has been cut off to discourage residents from staying.
Markets, stores, banks, schools and other commercial establishments were shuttered. Even several branches of a 24/7 convenience store chain were closed. Roads were empty except for vehicles of emergency workers and police,which have set up checkpoints around the affected towns.
While residents are allowed to briefly check on their houses and properties during the day, police later make rounds to make sure that they leave.
“We go back to get whatever we can salvage from our homes,” said Hilario Barion, a 37-year-old fisherman from Agoncillo town, one of the most devastated. — dpa