As many as 55,000 people living in the six-kilometer danger zone of the restive Mayon Volcano are being sheltered at present in 48 evacuation centers in Albay. The provincial government deserves commendation for this preemptive response to Mayon’s looming eruption. In May 2013, a leisurely hike up Mayon ended in tragedy for five climbers, four of them foreign tourists, when the volcano suddenly spewed ash and rocks. That incident underscored how one of the world’s most active volcanoes remains unpredictably volatile and dangerous—thus the sound decision of the Albay government to act proactively by herding its constituents out of the danger zone as soon as the volcano began acting up again.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology has maintained its Alert Level 3 over Mayon, which means an eruption is imminent in weeks, perhaps days. A crater glow was seen in the early morning hours of Wednesday, indicating “that the magma is at the crater and waiting for enough pressure to move up for an explosion,” said volcanologist Eduardo Laguerta. Phivolcs has also said the tiny tremors and rock falls that have occurred in the volcano’s environs in the last few days “suggest a sluggish movement of the lava flow, and slow extrusion of lava from the crater.”
The practical implications of that news for the evacuees, and the provincial government that tends to them, is clear: People may have to stay longer in the evacuation centers than was first forecast when the alarm was raised a month ago. Albay says the cost of feeding, housing and providing other basic services to its thousands of evacuees runs up to about P118 million a month. The national government has chipped in with P54 million; the local government has borne the rest. Those multimillion-peso figures may sound adequate, but they are belied by conditions on the ground.
The evacuees are by no means living in ideal conditions in their temporary shelters. The Department of Social Welfare and Development has come under renewed fire in the wake of news reports, accompanied by disturbing images, of spoiled food packs that were distributed to evacuees. Albay Gov. Joey Salceda has defended the DSWD, saying 99.9 percent of the food packs were good and 0.1 percent was a “reasonable error” given the multiple handling to which the goods had been subjected. A fair explanation perhaps, but it will not fully clear the DSWD of perceived laxity and carelessness in its work given earlier reports that food and other donations intended for the victims of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in the Visayas had also been found rotting in its warehouses.
Water and sanitation are another major problem in many evacuation centers. The lack of running water and toilets can lead to complications such as diarrhea and other diseases that may erupt as the evacuees endure the heat, the stink, and the absence of private spaces in the cramped and congested shelters.
The centers themselves are mostly rundown schools conscripted for the latest emergency to hit the community, while the children that ought to be using the school’s classrooms and facilities are banished somewhere for their lessons. That is the hard choice that Albay and other places that experience calamities inevitably have to make—take over schools to house residents fleeing disasters, but in the process also disrupt the education of schoolchildren.
Why is it, then—given the Philippines’ history with calamity, the fact that typhoons regularly lash the land and mere overnight rain can lead to floods inundating whole towns—that not one administration has made it a priority to build permanent evacuation centers, the kind that would not only shelter evacuees in the most spartan manner, but also be in compliance with international humanitarian standards?
The P118-million tab that Albay is running up to tend to its evacuees does not take into account the incalculable expense of families uprooted from their livelihoods and children prevented from their normal schooling because their classrooms are now a mass dormitory. Successive national governments have seen storms and floods grow worse over the years, not to mention armed conflict that would send families fleeing the battle zone. (Think of the Zamboanga City folk languishing in the grandstand, displaced by the adventure of Nur Misuari’s men.) Yet there are no sturdy, well-planned, long-term structures that would provide more humane accommodations to potential calamity victims.
A new day, a new disaster—and we cramp them in ad hoc centers all over again.
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