Getting Out of the Volcano Danger Zone

Thousands of animals await evacuation from Mayon volcano.

December 31, 2009, 11:15 AM

LEGAZPI, Philippines, Dec. 31, 2009 — -- Aid organizations plan to evacuate more than 4,000 animals to fields outside the danger zone of Mayon, the Philippines' most active volcano.

The government designated them as a priority, although about 2,000 water buffalo, 1,000 cattle, 5,500 pigs, 19,000 poultry and 4,600 dogs are in need of immediate evacuation, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which is on the ground in Legazpi.

"It's an incredible logistical challenge," Dick Green, the agency's emergency relief manager for disasters, said Tuesday. "Probably the biggest one I've ever had."

Behind him, water buffalo were being loaded into trucks, letters and numbers brushed in white paint on their bodies for authorities to keep track and owners to identify them.

"We can get 10 to 12 water buffalo in that truck," Green said. "That equates to over 400 round trips. The minimum round-trip time is 20 minutes from any of these shelters and probably closer to an hour each way."

In addition to such logistical challenges, aid organizations have run into resistance from farmers, some refusing to transport their animals because they rely on them to work their land, which is, in many cases, their only source of income.

The cost of a water buffalo, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is about $500, depending on age, sex and weight. It takes one water buffalo about a week, at $8 a day, to till about 2.5 acres of rice paddy fields.

Economics aside, many farmers are wary of transporting their animals.

Salvador Perez watched Tuesday as his four cows were unloaded at an animal evacuation site; each receiving a multi-vitamin injection.

"We are not assured if it's really safe here because it's our first time," Perez said to ABC News, explaining that an evacuation of this scale has never been done before.

Perez was most worried about Janice, his water buffalo, who is 8 months pregnant. He was concerned that the stress of a transfer might cause a miscarriage.

In anticipation of families attempting to celebrate New Year's together back at home, Gov. Joey Salceda has tightened the screws within the danger zone.

In an effort Wednesday night to prevent residents within a 5-mile radius of Mayon from sneaking back to their homes, Salceda ordered the power supply to be cut off.

Governor: 'I'm Running Out of Time'

The governor said this morning he would cut off their water supply as well.

"I'm not running out of patience," Salceda said. "I'm running out of time."

The evacuation has affected more than 47,000 people, many of whom have been living in gymnasiums and schools for more than two weeks.

As Mayon's alert level lingers at the second highest level for the 12th day now, families have made the most of their time away from home.

Janice Mina, 29, rubbed her belly at a school site Tuesday; her third child due any day now.

Another 19-year-old mother coaxed her newborn baby in a classroom, where desks are pushed together to form make-shift beds.

A mid-sized tent set up on a school playground housed more than a dozen people.

Lessons will be given outdoors Monday, when classes are expected to restart.

Mayon has had nearly 50 eruptions in recorded history. The volcano watch, according to volcanologists, most closely resembles patterns from 1984, when there was a lull in activity before a violent eruption.

"You think you know her," said Eduardo Laguerta, resident volcanologist who has studied Mayon's recorded eruptions dating back to 1616, "but she is making you guess."

Miki Toda and Anna Cerezo contributed to this report.