Ghost towns around Taal as frightened thousands flee volcano

Katrina Domingo, Dennis Datu and Jeff Canoy, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 13 2020 03:21 PM

TALISAY, Batangas -- An ashen beach and toppled trees were all that remained of a popular wedding venue a short boat ride from Taal, one of many areas transformed into ghost towns overnight as thousands fled the volcano's wrath.

Roads were shrouded in thick gray smoke as evacuees, their heads wrapped in cloth, clambered onto pick up trucks. Markets and offices in city centers were shut with a "hazardous" eruption possible, according to authorities.

Rains were expected in the ash-covered provinces of Batangas, Cavite, and Laguna, threatening to turn the debris into mud. A state of calamity was declared in Batangas, which will allow authorities there to tap emergency funds and freeze prices of basic goods.

The ash clouds from Sunday's eruption prompted the overnight closure of Manila's main airport, where some 240 flights were canceled. It reopened at noon with ashfall seen to shift to Quezon province.

"You could not sleep anymore, because every time you closed your eyes the house would shake," restaurant owner Lia Monteverde told AFP, describing the earthquakes that followed the eruption.

"All of us didn't sleep at all. We just prepared to leave."

At Balai Isabel, the popular wedding events venue, ash-covered the beachfront while tires of parked cars and SUVs were caked in mud.

Agoncillo town was difficult to reach due to landslides in Laurel. Earthquakes caused a portion of a school there to collapse.

In Lemery, poor visibility due to ash clouds on the road made evacuation difficult.

DUST MASKS SOLD OUT

Dust masks sold out in stores as authorities warned locals that the ash could cause respiratory problems especially in the very young and those with pre-existing lung conditions.

Limited flight operations resumed mid-Monday at Manila's main international airport, nearly a day after authorities halted them due to the safety risk volcanic ash poses to planes.

However, travelers booked on over 240 canceled flights still faced delays at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. 

"I'm disappointed because this (delay) means additional expense for me and it's tiring to wait," said stranded traveler Joan Diocaras, a 28-year-old Filipino who works in Taiwan.

"But there's nothing we can do."

ALERT LEVEL RAISED

The eruption began with an explosion of superheated steam and rock, but by early Monday "fountains" of lava had been spotted on Taal, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said.

Stunning lightning shows have periodically played out above the volcano in a little-understood phenomenon that is attributed to static electricity. 

Authorities raised the volcano alert level to its second-highest on Sunday, saying an "explosive eruption" could happen in "hours to days".

Phivolcs chief Renato Solidum told AFP the lava was evidence of fresh movement in the volcano, but said it was unclear if Taal would "sustain its activity".

Government seismologists recorded magma moving towards the crater of Taal, which is located 65 kilometers south of Manila.

Apart from the ash, some particles up to 6.4 centimeters (2.5 inches) in diameter, larger than a golf ball, had reportedly fallen in areas around the lake, Phivolcs said.

Taal's last eruption was in 1977, Solidum said.

Two years ago, Mount Mayon displaced tens of thousands of people after spewing millions of tonnes of ash, rocks, and lava in the central Bicol region.

The most powerful explosion in recent years was the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, about 100 kilometers northwest of Manila, which killed more than 800 people.


 -- with report from Ron Lopez and Mikhail Flores, Agence France-Presse