Thousands Fear Mayon Volcano's Eruption

Possible eruption forces more than 45,000 Filipinos to leave their homes.

December 23, 2009, 7:10 AM

LEGAZPI, Philippines, Dec. 23, 2009 — -- The booming and rumbling of the Philippines' most active volcano is heard throughout town.

Residents can see the ash columns spewing when the clouds break.

Mayon volcano triggers hundreds of daily earthquakes that get larger by the day.

The alert level remains at four, with five being the highest, at which point the volcano will have already started erupting.

While more than 45,000 people have evacuated their homes, many can't stay away because their land is their livelihood.

Jose Alcantara and Vicente Rodriguez risk returning home to the village of Bonga today, a restricted area three miles from Mayon's summit.

They can hear the thunderous sound of the volcano as they cross through rice paddies to reach their home.

Each time it rumbles, they peer up and point, trying to see Mayon through the cloudy sky. "I come here to check on my chicken, pigs and cow," Alcantara says.

He rushes back here twice a day to feed his livestock and cook meals to bring back to the evacuation center for his wife and nine children.

The tomato plants and rice fields he tends are his family's only source of income.

Rodriguez remembers surviving the last major eruptions in 1984 and 1993, which claimed lives, homes and land. He also lived through the most recent eruption in 2006. His crops suffered each time, although he has no choice but to stay, he says.

With the additional transportation costs to and from the evacuation centers, the cost of living for Alcantara and Rodriguez is now an added burden: Each round-trip costs them 20 pesos, or 43 cents.

Some village residents, such as Ricky Mina, 30, refuse to leave, trusting their own instincts and faith.

"We just believe in the Lord and mama Mary," Mina says, "because they will give us a sign."

The volcanologists on the ground are clear, warning that Mayon's activity has escalated and that an eruption could happen at any moment.

"The explosive activity of the volcano has escalated a little bit to a more energetic phase," says Renato Solidum, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

"And [as] in past eruptions," he adds, "this is the second to last stage. So after this stage, if there is more pressure, there can be more explosions with taller ash columns."

A Not-So-Merry Mayon Christmas

The volcanologists advise people to stay in gymnasiums and schools, evacuation centers with some providing housing for more than 3,000 people.

The shelters are in stark contrast to their homes amid rice paddy fields, with crowded spaces and long lines for food.

"I'm here 24 hours a day," says Rogie Montiveros, principal of one of the schools, who is helping to distribute rice, noodles, sardines and corn beef to residents.

Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo visited an evacuation center this afternoon and relief organizations continue to arrive. The Red Cross is scheduled to deliver Christmas food Thursday.

For now, the people of Legazpi wait, attending mass every night at the evacuation centers and knowing that this is likely where they will spend their Christmas.

Miki Toda and Anna Cerezo contributed to this report.

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