Heroism in Taal

Taal is the birthplace of many heroic Filipinos. With this latest eruption of Taal Volcano, this early, we have new heroes and heroines.

Taal Volcano has erupted at least 34 times in the past 450 years, with the 1754 event considered its biggest eruption ever, lasting almost seven months and burying four towns in Batangas. The 1911 eruption claimed 1,335 lives, injured 199 people, and caused widespread destruction. Before last week, the last recorded eruption, which has been described as weak, was in October 1977.

Last January 12, a Sunday, Taal Volcano erupted, emitting a huge plume of ash flung as high as 9 miles into the sky, belching a torrent of hot gas and lava, with lightning from the ash clouds, and made unnerving rumblings and tremors heard and felt all around. Soon after, a thick blanket of ash rained down upon the surrounding towns, turning these areas into an apocalyptic scene of desolate gray. The ash even reached Metro Manila.

Mindful of Taal’s lethal capacity in the past, experts are keeping alert level at 4 because despite the lull, the threat of an imminent devastating eruption remains a distinct possibility.

Dr. Renato Solidum, Science and Technology undersecretary and director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology and Maria Antonia Bornas, who heads the research division of Phivolcs, have done a heroic job in this challenging moment for their agency and the country. Their briefings are informative, comprehensive, understandable, and helpful. They give us confidence, assurance that science will guide the response to this disaster.

Behind Solidum and Bornas are of course many other Phivolcs scientists and staff. They too must be praised for doing a world-class job. Tunay silang bayani (they are true heroes).

In terms of the government, two national officials so far have stood out.

One is Vice President Leni Robredo, who with her staff was quick to respond and in a couple of days were already on the ground attending to evacuees. That should be emulated.The other is Senator Francis Tolentino, former mayor of Tagaytay City (disclosure: he was my first-year college roommate in Cervini Dorm in Ateneo de Manila and my first visit to Tagaytay in 1976 was to visit his family there) who is now in the forefront of the government’s response, coordinating the response efforts of local and national officials in Batangas, Cavite, and Laguna. Because of his experience as the head of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority during the Aquino years, Tolentino would know what to do in disasters while also having the network in the region so that good decisions can be made. Most important of all, he has the ear of the President.

I would, however, caution Senator Tolentino about rushing for Tagaytay or similar places to go back to normal. While Tagaytay is within the 14-mile high risk zone, it being in a ridge means that it is relatively safe. Still, notwithstanding this assurance, how could one enjoy Tagaytay during these times? And what if the worst-case scenario played out, how would you get out of the city? Already last Jan. 12, many visitors of Tagaytay shared harrowing stories of traveling back to Manila.

The local government units have mobilized, receiving help from their counterparts all over the country. I praise all these local officials for doing their duties.

In the same manner, the usual first responders—from the military and the police assisting in the evacuation to health officials and teachers that have to help in the evacuation centers—have risen up to the occasion.

Religious institutions like the Catholic Church are offering shelter to the displaced and giving relief assistance by opening places of worship and seminaries to evacuees and for leading the people to prayer.

Schools like De La Salle University in Lipa and youth organizations led by the Kabataan Party-List are participating in the relief efforts.

People as far away as Sagada in the Cordillera sent food to their countrymen in their time of need.

The business community has also responded well to the demands of the emergency.

We must thank especially the three young men—Rio Abel, Maximino Alcantara and Darwin Lajara, all in their 20s, who died in an accident while delivering relief goods in Batangas. Tunay din silang bayani (they are also true heroes).

Indeed, as it always happens during times like this, our people have opened their hearts (and pockets) with unlimited generosity. This kindness has extended to animals.

Unfortunately, there are exceptions to this spirit of unity and solidarity—those who choose to still be divisive at this time, grandstanding legislators criticizing our volcanologists without basis, those who misinform us with fake news about Robredo’s relief operations, and leaders who distract people from efforts to address the crisis by once again attacking the Catholic Church and business leaders.

At some point, we must also ask how the national government is performing on its disaster response, on where the gaps are—especially on the budget and on the adequacy of our disaster institutions. Taal reminds that the country needs an independent, stand-alone, and well-funded disaster resilience agency.

I will be remiss if I do not end this column by praising the people of Volcano Island and the communities around the lake. I know people in those communities—Howie Severino and Ipat Luna whose Kapusod has been a place of rest and comfort for me, fisherfolk families in Barrio Kinalaglagan where I spent a week of immersion in 1979 during my college years, my Overseas Filipino Worker students in Rome and other places who have spent their savings building beautiful villas in their hometowns around the lake, and my former driver Dante and his mother who lived in Talisay and who has now evacuated.

In a note he posted in Facebook, Howie captures an essential truth about the lake. “My wife, son, and I may soon lose everything. But that only means that at one stage in our lives, we had everything. This volcano, always alive and ready to blow, makes a pact with everyone who chooses to live near it: whatever it gives can be taken away at any time.”

Some people do not like the word resilience. I do. I thank Howie, Ipat, Dante, and all the people of Taal for their resilience. We will need a lot of that in the days to come.

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