On January 2nd, Gil family members and friends made the trek to the Filipino holiday city of Tagaytay from all corners of the earth to witness the marriage of my aunt and her new husband. Though only 35 miles away from my grandparent’s house in the capital city, Manila, the drive was painfully slow. As soon as we reached the city limits, the two lanes merged into one, and the usual midday traffic slowed to a crawl. While it only took thirty minutes to reach Tagaytay, it took an additional two hours to reach the city’s heart. When we finally reached our hotel, it was more than a welcoming site. Situated on a majestic cliff brushed with clouds, it overlooked a lush green valley speckled with white buildings, a peaceful range of rolling hills, and the glimmering lake below.
“Isabel look! There’s Taal volcano,” my dad said, pointing excitedly to a harmless looking crest in the middle of the lake. “Inside, there’s a crater, and there’s even a lake inside of that.”
“I read that the whole surrounding lake is a giant caldera,” said my Tito Andrew, peering over the balcony railing down beside me at the placid landscape below.
“Uhhh, it’s dormant, right?” I joked.
“It’s active, but it’s been pretty quiet since the sixties.”
“Oh god,” I chuckled. “Well, it’s just got to hold off until we fly out!”
On Sunday, January 12th — only 10 days later — Taal volcano decided it could hold off no more. It erupted, spewing torrents of ash and steam up to nine miles into the darkened sky, while seismic earthquakes and lightning flashed in apocalyptic displays, according to National Geographic. The vibrant lakeside tourist hub was transformed into a murky sea of gray, shrouded in tumultuous clouds and blanketed in thick mud resulting from the humidity, rain, and heavy deposited ash. Filipino authorities urged for a large scale “total evacuation” among the half-million citizens of the surrounding areas of 8.7 miles and issued advisory warnings for citizens living within 10.6 miles of the volcano. More than 50,000 people are currently living among 217 makeshift evacuation centers with no projected time to return to their homes.
“[I’m] sure that our hotel with the beautiful view is now devastated, [and the restaurant] where we had our reception must also have been affected,” my grandma texted me on Tuesday evening. “Never in my lifetime did this volcano… erupt at this magnitude.”
Even now, four days post the initial explosion, Taal’s activity has remained consistent. Spewing lava generates large crests of steam, reaching up to half a mile high into the sky. Fissures in the earth have opened, scarring the ground in several places, and more than 460 earthquakes have been detected since Sunday. Ashfall continues to build up, choking the surrounding land and getting deposited up to 60 miles away from the location of the volcano.
35 miles away from Taal in Manila, “the cars are all whitish and muddy, and I have instructed everyone to wear masks when we [leave] the house” described my Lola. “…you can feel the dust particle when you go [outside].” With the increase of sediment in the air, citizens have rushed to stores to purchase face masks. The Manila Times reported that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened criminal charges to any businesses who unfairly hiked up prices of masks.
With its deadliest eruption in 1911 claiming over 1,335 lives, and its most recent major eruption claiming 190 lives in 1965, Taal has had four minor eruptions in the years since. Even though volcanic tremors have been closely monitored in Taal since March of 2019, according to CNN, officials at The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) were taken aback at the rapid acceleration of Sunday’s eruption. Thankfully, there have been no recorded casualties since Sunday, but the pressing issue of evacuating millions of citizens away from the towns in which they’ve constructed their lives remains. Many of their homes have been crushed by the ash, and up to 2,000 livestock animals have been reported dead. If the evacuees are ever able to return to their homes, their lives will never be the same.
PHIVOLCS has kept the alert level at 4 (out of five), insinuating that the danger is perhaps not over yet. Though the volcano plume has slowed to “weak emission of gas”, Maria Antonia Bornas, the chief of monitoring and eruption prediction at PHIVOLCS disclosed to Rappler reporters that “intense seismic activity has persisted.” Experts have not yet ruled out the possibility of a second “hazardous eruption” occurring within hours or days, explaining that while surface activity has slowed, there are clear indications such as magma continuing to rise up from below.
Feature Image credit to Jovic Sabido