August 12, 2006

Philippine Volcano Blast Appears Likely

LEGAZPI, Philippines -- President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on Saturday visited villagers forced to flee their homes due to restive Mayon volcano and ordered officials to speed up efforts to improve conditions at cramped evacuation centers.

Scientists told Arroyo in a briefing that Mayon, the Philippines' most active volcano, appears to be gearing up for an explosive eruption since it began quietly oozing lava four weeks ago.

Following successive ash explosions on Monday, officials ordered a mass evacuation of villages on the southern and southeastern slopes of the volcano, which are the most vulnerable to a violent eruption.

By late Saturday, more than 42,000 people were evacuated to schools, where villagers complained of overcrowding.

Arroyo told officials to immediately deliver prefabricated shelters and portable toilets to ease the congestion and assure sanitation.

"Why make them live in shanties? We have money for better things," she said.

She shook hands with some of the evacuees at Legazpi city's Bagumbayan Elementary School, as others cheered and applauded. She also distributed bags of relief supplies that included blankets, canned goods, soap and toothpaste.

"We are happy that she came here," said Alma Rana, a 29-year-old mother of four. "It's uncomfortable here, the toilet facilities are inadequate and we lack water."

Dozens of people were packed into schoolrooms that normally seat about 40, and were forced to sleep on the concrete floors. During school hours, the evacuees stayed in tents outside or remained in the school's corridors.

Provincial Gov. Fernando Gonzalez said a major eruption could increase the number of evacuees by 20,000.

A train loaded with packages of used clothes and boxes of luncheon meat arrived Friday in Legazpi, the capital of Albay province, and one of the towns at the foot of the 2,462-meter (8,077-foot) volcano.

Mayon, about 340 kilometers (210 miles) southeast of Manila, is known for its near-perfect conical peak.

Renato Solidum, chief of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, said with two more ash explosions Saturday, the number of such events had increased to 20 since Monday, when the agency declared alert Level 4 - the second highest of a five-step volcano warning system that suggests a "hazardous" eruption within days.

"I emphasized (to the president) that the character being exhibited by Mayon has changed. There is a shift to the more explosive phases," he told The Associated Press.

Solidum said that clouds of extremely hot gas, ash and debris called pyroclastic flows that roll down the slopes of the volcano at high speed during an eruption might be contained within a six-kilometer (3.75-mile) zone from the crater. The "danger zone" has been extended up to eight kilometers (five miles) on the mountain's southeastern flanks.

"The volume (of lava) and the explosivity will be less than 1814," Solidum said, referring to the year of the volcano's deadliest eruption when lava flowed up to 10 kilometers (six miles) down the slope, burying an entire town and killing 1,200 people.