Philippines

Philippines: Volcano evacuees braced for eruption

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MANILA, 16 December 2009 (IRIN) - Mayon volcano in eastern Albay Province in the Philippines is expected to erupt any minute, but relief assistance has been in place for months for thousands of evacuees, officials say.

Nearly 23,000 people have been evacuated to 13 centres from villages near Mayon, one of the country's most active volcanoes, according to the Office of Civil Defence in the Bicol Region, where the province is located.

"We are now in a state of imminent disaster," Albay's governor, Joey Salceda, told IRIN, as he ordered the release of "calamity funds" to allow local government units to mobilize additional resources for evacuation centres around Albay.

"You don't have to wait for people to die to declare a disaster . We aim to have zero casualties," he said, adding that within the next two days, an additional 30,000 plus people will be evacuated to safer ground.

The picturesque Mayon, 2,460m high, which looms over the provincial capital Legazpi, began spewing ash plumes and lava on 14 December, forcing the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology to raise the alert level from two to three.

Level three means magma is close to the crater and hazardous volcanic eruption is possible within weeks. Level four means an eruption is possible within days, while the highest level five means an eruption is occurring, according to the institute's website. The upgrade sparked a mandatory evacuation of villages and towns within 8km of the mountain.

"Right now, we can't rule out a major explosion," said Cedric Daep, head of the provincial disaster operations, stressing that ash explosions as high as 1,000m have been recorded, alongside a series of deep rumbling earthquakes.

Schools within an 8km radius of Mayon have been suspended, hospitals are on alert and basic relief items are being made available in evacuation centres, the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) said in its situation update on 15 December.

Deadly mudslides

Known for its near-perfect cone, Mayon has erupted 48 times in recorded history.

It was last active in mid-2006, when a mild eruption saw large amounts of volcanic debris deposited on its slopes. After an initial alert, residents who had been evacuated were allowed to return to their farming villages.

But typhoon Reming struck the region in November of that year, triggering deadly mudslides of volcanic ash and boulders from the slopes that engulfed entire communities and left more than 1,000 dead.

That was the worst disaster blamed on Mayon since 1814, when an eruption buried the town of Cagsawa and killed about 1,200 people.

Governor Salceda said his government learned bitter lessons in 2006.

"That is not going to happen any more. We have learned our lessons. This year alone, we have carried out at least five preventive evacuations," he said.

However, he stressed that a prolonged crisis could also mean additional funds may be needed from the national government.

"These people may end up spending Christmas and New Year in evacuation centres," he said.

Lessons learned

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), meanwhile, said it had dispatched a team to Albay to help in the evacuation.

"IOM is now pre-positioning an emergency response team in Albay to conduct pre-coordination meeting[s] with our government partners to monitor the situation and stand by for rapid assessment and response, should the need arise," IOM's regional programme officer, Ida Mae Fernandez, told IRIN.

"Our post-Reming programme was a fertile source of lessons learned in the arena of coordination with government, among humanitarian agencies and within the affected populations and communities," said Fernandez.

"As importantly, post-Reming was the time when the Philippine government institutionalized the cluster approach towards ensuring predictability of disaster response among relevant agencies," she said.

President Gloria Arroyo's office said she had directed the NDCC in Manila and the Social Welfare Department to begin preparing for a likely eruption, and to ensure that relief assistance could be deployed at a moment's notice.

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