Philippines

Philippine volcano danger lingers, villagers return

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By Erik de Castro

LEGAZPI, Philippines (Reuters) - Villagers began returning to their homes around the Philippines' Mayon volcano on Monday after a series of powerful weekend eruptions and despite warnings from scientists that the danger was not yet over.

More than 25,000 people have fled their homes since Mayon began erupting at noon on Sunday but, with the volcano calmer on Monday, hundreds hiked back to their villages, complaining of overcrowding and lack of facilities in evacuation centres.

"Mayon has no history of erupting only for a day. The probability is high that there will be more eruptions," vulcanologist Ed Laguerta told Reuters.

"There are factors... that could lead to even stronger explosions," he said. "It's not yet time to go back. The danger is not over."

Mayon, one of the Philippines' 22 active volcanoes, has a history of 45 violent eruptions since its first recorded eruption in 1616. The deadliest occurred in 1814 when it buried a town under mud and rocks and killed 1,200 people.

The country's vulcanology institute said Mayon's latest eruption could last from one to two weeks.

The volcano in Albay province, 330 km (205 miles) southeast of Manila, unleashed a series of thunderous eruptions on Sunday, ejecting superheated gases and boulders described by a vulcanologist as "bigger than trucks".

One man died when hit by a truck as he fled but there have been no reports of direct casualties from the eruptions.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

The series of eruptions, which lasted well into the night, forced a total of 4,596 families -- 25,515 people -- to seek shelter in about a dozen elementary school rooms which relief agencies had converted into evacuation centres.

In some schools, as many as 15 families were jammed in one small room, evacuees said.

After a sleepless night in a room in Bagumbayan Elementary School, which she and her seven children shared with several other families, Bienvenida Abellano, 57, had had enough.

On Monday, she and her children were back home, sweeping away the half-inch-thick layer of volcanic ashes which had swamped the roof of their house in Matanag at the foot of the volcano.

"We had no choice but to come back home because the school was so crowded and we didn't have even a mat under our backs," Abellano told Reuters.

Farmer Nilo Nunez, 59, said he had to come back to Mabinit village to attend to his vegetable farm. "I am also afraid looters might steal our belongings," he added.

The once-lush colours of the vegetation in Nunez's village had all but vanished in the clouds of volcanic ash -- called "black rains" -- which had fallen on Mabinit, turning houses, trees and leaves grey.

A heavy smell of sulphur lingered in the air.

Motorists driving down ash-swamped roads in Ligao town had to turn on their headlights even at mid-morning so they could have a glimmer of what lay ahead.

Visibility was so poor in one village that a truck full of evacuees missed a turn and crashed into a canal, injuring some of its occupants, witnesses said.

"THEY ARE JUST HARD-HEADED"

Relief officials were flabbergasted at the sight of returning evacuees.

"No matter how much you try to stop them, they still wanted to go back. They are just hard-headed," social welfare department officer Yoly Ganzon said.

Cedric Daep, chief provincial relief officer, saw problems ahead. "The problem here once the volcano erupts again, we will have to get all these back into the evacuation centres."

Defence Secretary Angelo Reyes said the biggest problem facing the affected residents was lack of food and water filters.

"We're sending 10 more army trucks to augment the 13 trucks already there. We have the situation under control," Reyes said in Manila, before leaving for the affected region.

To boost relief efforts, Governor Alfrancis Bicharra declared a state of calamity in Albay province, a move which would empower him to release funds for relief and rehabilitation work.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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