MANILA (UPDATE) - Residents of areas outside Taal Volcano's 7-kilometer radius in Batangas province started returning to their homes on Sunday after its status was lowered to alert level 3.
Elated residents of Lemery town were among the first to be seen heading back, greeting law enforcers in checkpoints with cheers and expressions of gratitude, a video tweet of ABS-CBN reporter Jonathan Magistrado showed.
Following the downgrading of the Taal Volcano alert status to level 3 from 4 earlier in the day, Batangas Governor Hermilando Mandanas said residents of the following areas may opt to return to their residences and places of work, but with caution: Alitagtag, Balete, Cuenca, Lemery, Lipa City, Malvar, Mataas na Kahoy, San Nicolas, Sta. Teresita, Taal, Talisay, and Tanauan City.
"It is still possible that Taal Volcano may still erupt. Therefore, all returning residents must be constantly alert, vigilant and ready to evacuate within one hour," Mandanas told reporters.
The towns of Agoncillo and Laurel, however, remain on lockdown as they are within the restricted zone.
The volcano island remains a permanent danger zone, Phivolcs said.
Taal's steam-driven eruption on Jan. 12 has displaced nearly 377,000 people in the provinces of Batangas, Quezon, Laguna and Cavite, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
Under the new guidelines, up to 90 percent of the displaced population are expected to return to their homes, NDRRMC Executive Director Ricardo Jalad said.
Brig. Gen. Marciliano Teofilo, commander of the military's Joint Task Force Taal, urged residents to return to their homes in groups.
Mandanas assured continuing assistance to those who return to their homes and find their properties and livelihood damaged, as well as to those who will remain in evacuation centers.
The governor said some 55,000 schools-based evacuees are also due for transfer as classes in colleges and universities in the province have resumed last Friday.
Classes in elementary and high school, meanwhile, remain suspended, he said.
With the expected return of residents in portions of the affected area, Phivolcs advised local officials to assess damages and roads in areas outside the prohibited area following the occurrence of fissures, which indicates the flow of magma underground.
"Pinapaalalahanan po natin ang ating mga kababayan sa paligid ng bulkan na maging maingat sa paggalaw ng fissure, pagkakaroon ng mga abo, at mga paglindol," Phivolcs officer-in-charge Renato Solidum told reporters.
He also warned those residing near rivers, particularly on the western side of the volcano, of the occurrence of lahar.
Teofilo advised residents to go back to evacuation centers after checking their homes and livelihoods, in case the volcano's activity escalates.
"'Yung probability kasi, uncertain pa rin. Though maganda yung indicators ng Phivolcs, but (it's) still unpredictable... In the event kasi na mag-alert level 4 ulit, yung hirap kasi ng pag-evacuate kasi yung road," he said.