MANILA (REUTERS, AFP, NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG) - The Philippines was on alert on Monday (Jan 13) for a possible “volcanic tsunami” from the eruption of the Taal volcano south of Manila, a popular tourist attraction set in the centre of a picturesque lake.
A mass evacuation was under way after the nation’s seismological agency warned that a “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days”.
The volcano spewed a massive cloud of ash that drifted across the Philippine capital on Sunday, forcing the cancellation of flights and closure of schools and government offices.
Flight operations at the Philippines’ main international airport partially resumed on Monday, airport authorities said.
Partial operations resumed by 0200 GMT (10am in Singapore) for departures and 0400 GMT for arrivals at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), they said.
In a joint statement, the Department of Transportation, Manila International Airport Authority and Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said flight arrivals would, however, be subject to slot availability.
Departures would be prioritised to clear the airport ramps of planes parked there since Sunday night, they said.
The eruption has already triggered some 75 earthquakes and spewed “ballistic fragments”, forcing the nation’s financial markets to suspend trading to ensure the safety of traders and employees.
Thousands of people have been evacuated since late on Sunday, with plans to move as many as 200,000 people, after the volcano suddenly shot a column of ash and steam as high as 15km into the sky.
“It’s been endless evacuation since last night,” said Ms Lita Laverinto, an operations officer with the Office of Civil Defence in Calabarzon. “We need masks; our volunteers and respondents who are directing rescues and evacuation really need them.”
The volcanology agency said weak lava fountaining, accompanied by thunder and flashes of lightning, indicated intense activity at the main crater of the Taal volcano, which is one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes.
The authorities said there was a risk that an eruption could cause a tsunami in the lake.
“Taal is a very small volcano, but a dangerous volcano,” Mr Renato Solidum, head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), told Reuters. “It is unique because it is a volcano within a volcano."
The institute raised the danger level posed by the volcano to four out of a possible five.
Dozens of towns and urban areas all the way to metro Manila, including the main business district of Makati City, are enduring ash fall and volcanic particles up to 64mm in diameter.
Some locals, however, weighed whether or not to flee the area.
“I’m afraid that it might erupt... but I’ll leave it to fate. I just have to pray,” Mr Eduardo Carino, who works in a hotel near the volcano, told AFP.
The Philippines lies on the “Ring of Fire”, a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes.
One of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, Taal erupted more than 30 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 1977. An eruption in 1911 killed 1,500 people and one in 1754 lasted for a few months.
“That is the worst case scenario,” Mr Solidum said.
About 8,000 residents of the volcano island and other high-risk towns were being evacuated, with about 6,000 already out of the danger zone by Sunday evening, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council told reporters.
The volcano and its surroundings are a popular weekend getaway from Manila.
The drifting ash has forced the cancellation of about 200 flights, affecting about 60,000 passengers, in and out of the international airport on Sunday.
General manager Ed Monreal told local radio DZMM that flights may resume partial operations on Monday.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s office ordered the suspension of government work in the capital and of all school classes in Manila and other areas affected by the ash.
A statement advised private companies to follow suit.
Bank of the Philippine Islands, the nation’s oldest lender, suspended operations in “badly affected areas”, mostly in Batangas and Cavite and allowed some staff in less-affected areas to work remotely, according to Mr Owen Cammayo, vice-president of corporate communications. The bank will decide later on Monday if it will close early, he said.
In Manila, long queues formed in shops selling face masks as health officials warned of possible breathing problems for people with respiratory ailments and urged the public to stay indoors and use dust masks when going out.
“When I went to my car to bring my groceries, I saw it was covered in ash. So I hurriedly went back inside to buy a mask from a drugstore but they had run out,” said Ms Angel Bautista, 41, a resident of Paranaque city, south of the capital.
Taal’s ash plume was clearly visible from the city of Tagaytay, a well-frequented viewing spot for the volcano.
“We were having lunch when we heard rumbling. We saw the volcano erupting. It rained and some small pebbles fell to the ground,” Mr Jon Patrick Yen, a restaurant customer in Tagaytay, told Reuters.
“I did not expect to see such spectacle. We just went by to eat.”