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Editorial

Unfolding crisis

/ 04:09 AM January 15, 2020

Crisis, it’s been said, brings out the best and worst in people. There’s plenty of instances of that dichotomy in the way the country is responding to the ongoing eruption of Taal Volcano in Batangas, which, to date, has chased out some 30,000 residents of Taal lakeshore towns to evacuation centers.

There are the men on the streets or rooftops hosing down the windshields of affected vehicles to avoid accidents because of poor visibility; there’s this carinderia in a Batangas town offering free meals to evacuees; the SVD seminary in Tagaytay offering shelter to those displaced by the eruption; a water concessionaire sending 30 water tankers to affected areas; a grandmother and former modiste who began sewing improvised masks to fill up the shortage; a jeepney association offering free transport; and people actually handing out the much-needed masks to those who needed protection from the toxic ash-laced air.

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Donation drives have also been started to provide for the evacuees crammed in public schools and gymnasiums, while animal welfare groups have volunteered to get abandoned animals on volcano island to safer ground.

At the same time, however, stories of greed and opportunism are told in the same breath: of people hoarding the precious masks that normally costs P20 to P30, and reselling them at a reprehensible P200 each; of pranksters and netizens who add to the panic by posting fake news on impending quakes, volcanic tsunamis, even the supposed erosion of a popular mall’s foundation; and troublemakers inexplicably throwing stones at a firetruck on its way to delivering aid to refugees, damaging the vehicle.

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Politics, too, has reared its ugly head, with a congressman, in the midst of this emergency, demanding a public hearing to grill the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) for allegedly not warning people about the impending eruption.

Alert Level 4 is currently raised over Taal Volcano, which means that hazardous eruption is possible within hours to days. Alert Level 1 has been raised over the volcano since March 2019, and an advisory on heightened unrest has been released since December, Phivolcs officials said.

Still, experts admitted being quite surprised by the pace of Taal’s activity, moving up from Alert Level 3 on Sunday afternoon to Alert Level 4 in a matter of hours.

In a Dec. 29 story in this paper, or two weeks before the Jan. 12 phreatic eruption (mostly steam from heated ground water), Phivolcs said it had moved out of the volcano island precisely to show how dangerous the place is, while three elementary schools have been transferred to the mainland, again to stress the hazards posed by the volcano.

But the residents — most of them migrants from other provinces — have settled on the island despite its lack of potable water source and electricity, setting up a trusty livelihood on the declared national park by fishing, renting out horses to tourists and planting crops on the rich volcanic soil.

The alert level and largely unheeded plea to evacuate since March last year could have at least prompted the local government units of the different towns around the volcano to establish a drill that would lead to an orderly evacuation, much like that put in place by the Marikina officials after the disastrous “Ondoy” flood in 2009, and the way Albay has set up protocols to respond to the frequent unrest of Mt. Mayon.

Jarring the public some more was the widely-circulated plea from Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, who asked for donations of masks, food, water, mats and mattresses, and other supplies for the rapidly growing evacuee population.

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While generous souls have responded, netizens have also raised a pertinent question: Whatever happened to government funds, with President Duterte having signed only last week the P4.1 trillion budget for 2020?

More specifically, people point to the millions of pesos of pork insertions of Congress representatives, the P163.81-billion budget of the Social Welfare department, and, not least, the Office of the President’s P8.2-billion budget.

Why is the government appealing for aid from the citizenry this early, when it has just allocated a humongous budget for itself?

With Taal seemingly only warming up and the scale and duration of its restiveness projected to be open-ended at this time, this is an unfolding crisis that will test the country gravely in the next days and months.

As with the Mt. Pinatubo calamity, entire towns and communities may lose homes and livelihoods, with lives upended and futures made uncertain. The country’s efforts at this time should encompass not only extending help to distressed citizens, but, critically, also preparing for bigger contingencies — with the government doing its job by leading the way.

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