A Taal homecoming: 'Everything’s gone in the blink of an eye'

Jason Gutierrez, The New York Times

Posted at Jan 15 2020 08:49 AM

Residents evacuate their ash-strewn village as the Taal volcano erupts just across the lake in Laurel, Philippines, on Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. Philippine officials appealed on Monday for desperate residents who were evacuated from towns endangered by the erupting Taal Volcano not to return to their homes because of the risk. Jes Aznar, The New York Times

TAAL VOLCANO -- The toxic ash and smoke, reeking of sulfur and other noxious gases, have transformed this verdant island, a popular tourist spot, into a vast carpet of lifeless gray.

“My home is now gone,” said Melvin Mendoza, 39, a boatman who returned Tuesday to Taal, the volcanic island in the middle of a freshwater lake just 40 miles south of Manila, which erupted Sunday like an atomic bomb mushroom cloud.

At least 30,000 people in a 9-mile radius of surrounding towns have fled, and the United Nations says as many as a half-million residents remain at risk. For now, Taal is not habitable, and volcanologists say a new and perhaps more powerful eruption is possible.

Despite government warnings, Mendoza and a few other residents of the island ventured back from emergency shelters Tuesday to see firsthand what remained of their homes, and perhaps salvage a few belongings. A reporter and photographer from The New York Times accompanied them.

Among the first challenges they faced as they sloshed ashore from a motorized canoe was the 2 feet of ash. Hundreds of dead, ash-coated tilapia bobbed in the gentle current, injecting the smell of rotting fish into the sulfur-scented air.

In some places, rain had already hardened the ash, like crusty snow, making it relatively easy to walk over. Elsewhere, the ash was still soft and treacherous.

Coconut trees are now blackened stumps, and the menacing mountain was still belching plumes of smoke and ash with ultrafine particles that are dangerous to breathe.

One of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes, Taal roared to life with a jolt Sunday, catapulting ash a mile high and triggering dozens of earthquakes that panicked residents as far away as the Manila metropolitan area, home to nearly 13 million people.

The government’s Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said Tuesday another hazardous eruption was possible soon. It said all residents should stay away.

The Taal volcano has erupted about 35 times in the past few hundred years, volcanologists say. The last time was in 1977.

There was little warning before Taal erupted again Sunday, and residents of the island and nearby towns in Batangas Province scrambled for safety, forced to leave everything behind.

Mendoza said he felt lucky. His wife, Jasmine, 34, and 2 young children, ages 14 and 10, escaped unscathed.

“As long as we’re alive, there’s hope,” he said.

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