TAGAYTAY, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government will no longer allow people to live on the crater-studded island that's home to the erupting Taal volcano, with officials warning that living there would be “like having a gun pointed at you."
The simmering volcano has ejected smaller ash plumes for days after a gigantic eruption Jan. 12 sent ash drifting north over Manila, the capital, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) away. While a larger, explosive eruption is still possible and tens of thousands of evacuees remain in emergency shelters, officials have begun discussing post-eruption recovery.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said officials in Batangas province, where the volcano is located, have been asked to look for a safer housing area, at least 3 hectares (7 acres) in size, for about 6,000 families that used to live in four villages and worked mostly as tourist guides, farmers and fish pen operators on Volcano Island. The new housing site should be at least 17 kilometers (10 miles) away from the restive volcano to be safe, he said.
The island was long ago designated a national park that''s off-limits to permanent villages. The government’s volcano-monitoring agency has separately declared the island a permanent danger zone, but still, impoverished villagers have lived and worked there for decades.
“We have to enforce these regulations once and for all because their lives are at stake,” Ano said Sunday, adding that closely regulated tourism work could eventually be allowed on the island without letting residents live there permanently.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has approved a recommendation for the island to be turned into a “no man’s land,” but he has yet to issue formal guidelines. After an initial visit last week, Duterte plans to return to hard-hit Batangas province on Monday to check conditions of displaced villagers, Ano said.
The 311-meter (1,020-foot) -high Taal is the second most-active of 24 restive Philippine volcanoes. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology has placed Taal at alert level 4, the second-highest warning, indicating a more dangerous explosive eruption is possible within hours or days due to continuous earthquakes, emissions of volcanic gases, and other signs that magma is rising.
“They lived on the volcano itself with 47 craters. That’s really dangerous. It’s like having a gun pointed at you,” Renato Solidum, the head of the volcanology institute, told The Associated Press.
Health officials say hundreds of people have been treated for ash-related breathing problems, but no deaths have been directly blamed on the eruption. Ash and volcanic debris have damaged homes near the crater, and the pressure of the magma underground has cracked roads and earth nearby.
Taal left more than 200 people dead in a powerful 1965 eruption, then again exploded in 1977. Government advisories about Taal's renewed restiveness as early as March last year helped local officials prepare and evacuate thousands of villagers rapidly from Volcano Island hours before the volcano erupted thunderously.
Lucia Amen, a 45-year-old mother of six, said she started packing up clothes in bags in November after hearing from her children that their teachers were warning that the volcano was acting up again. When the volcano erupted, she said she was ready with her family and rapidly moved out of Laurel town, which lies near Volcano Island.
Amen wept quietly Sunday while attending Mass in an evacuation center in Tagaytay city in Cavite province, saying she was worried about her children as the eruption dragged on.
A senator from Batangas, Ralph Recto, has recommended the creation of a commission to oversee the recovery of the volcano-devastated region. It would be similar to a government body that was established after Mount Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption north of Manila.
A long-dormant volcano, Pinatubo, blew its top in one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, killing hundreds of people and devastating the Philippines' main rice-producing region.
The Philippines lies along the Pacific "Ring of Fire,” a string of faults around the ocean basin where many of the world’s earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.
Gomez reported from Manila. Associated Press journalist Joeal Calupitan in Tagaytay contributed to this report.