LEGAZPI – A gentle eruption of the Philippines’ most active volcano that has forced nearly 18,000 people to flee to emergency shelters could last for months and create a protracted crisis, officials said Wednesday.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. flew to northeastern Albay province to reassure villagers who were forced to evacuate from mostly poor farming communities within a 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) radius of the Mayon volcano’s crater since volcanic activity spiked last week.
Marcos distributed food packs and other aid to displaced villagers, and met Albay town mayors later Wednesday to discuss the unfolding crisis.
The eruption is the latest natural calamity to test the administration of Marcos, who took office in June 2022 in a Southeast Asian nation regarded as one of the most disaster-prone in the world. About 20 typhoons and storms a year lash the Philippines, and the poor archipelago with 23 active volcanoes wrestles with frequent earthquakes.
Marcos told displaced villagers at an evacuation center that it may take up to three months before the volcanic eruption eases and they could return home. Some displaced villagers have complained of the heat and overcrowding in emergency shelters and local officials pledged to provide more electric fans and improve their condition.
“We should be careful, we don't want to commit a mistake. We don't want people getting harmed if you return home then something happens,” Marcos told the displaced villagers. “We're very careful so nothing will happen to all of you who live near Mayon volcano.”
The volcano's activity was raised to alert level three on a five-step warning system on June 8, meaning a hazardous eruption was considered possible in weeks or days.
After days of showing signs of renewed restiveness, including a swarm of rockfalls and a bright-orange crater glow visible at night, Mayon began expelling lava Sunday night. The lava flowed slowly down its southeastern slope, government experts said.
Authorities enforced a mandatory evacuation of tens of thousands of villagers living within a permanent danger zone around the volcano. The zone is supposed to be off-limits to people but has become the site of farming villages of mostly impoverished residents that have thrived for generations.
Albay's governor extended the danger zone by a kilometer (more than half a mile) on Monday after Mayon began expelling red-hot lava. He asked more residents to be ready to move anytime if the volcanic activity picked up.
"It's a very gentle eruption and hopefully, it will stay that way,” Teresito Bacolcol, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, told The Associated Press.
The volcano could spew lava gently for as long as three months or more, as it has done in the past, without generating a violent and life-threatening explosion, Bacolcol said, warning people not to let their guards down.
A tame but prolonged eruption would mean the large number of displaced villagers would have to stay away from their homes and in emergency shelters where they receive food packs, drinking water and other government-provided basic necessities.
"It's a very difficult situation,” Daraga Mayor Carlwyn Baldo said. About 2,900 residents of his town have fled to evacuation shelters, including school buildings that would need to cleared of evacuees before classes resume in August and September.
"We can't allow anybody to return home even if there’s just a crater glow. It’s dangerous. The volcano may suddenly erupt violently and put people in danger,” Baldo told the AP, adding he was considering setting up tents for the displaced now taking shelter in school buildings.
His rural Albay province town of 140,000 people could not afford the huge cost of providing food aid and other necessities to the evacuees without national government assistance, Baldo said.
Along with frequent natural disasters, Marcos inherited an economy shattered by the coronavirus pandemic, which deepened poverty and unemployment.
Unhindered by clouds, Mayon appeared calm Wednesday. Bacolcol, the seismology institute director, said lava continued to flow slowly down its slopes but could not be seen easily under the bright sun.
The 2,462-meter (8,077-foot) volcano is a top tourist draw in the Philippines because of its picturesque conical shape but is the most active of the country's 24 known volcanoes. It last erupted violently in 2018, displacing tens of thousands. An 1814 eruption buried entire villages and left more than 1,000 people dead.
Authorities were closely watching two other volcanoes elsewhere in the country Wednesday for signs of activity.
Associated Press journalist Aaron Favila contributed to this report.