As volcano awakens, Philippines 'zero casualty' record faces test

by Imelda Abano | @iabano | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 20 October 2014 13:15 GMT

A farmer walks with his buffalo, with the Mayon volcano in the background in Albay province, south of Manila, on September 17, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

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In 10 years, Albay province has not suffered a single disaster death. Can it keep up that record?

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The Philippines’ most active volcano, Mayon, is showing signs of a big eruption within weeks, with streams of lava seen flowing out of its dome on Sunday.

But local officials and civil disaster authorities as early as last month began moving more than 57,000 people in 40 villages located within an eight-kilometre "extended danger zone" to evacuation centres.

Albay province, about 300 kilometers away from Manila, has had its fair share of natural disasters over the years – flooding, typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But such exposure to risks has also led to better preparedness to deal with them.

In 10 years, the province has not suffered a single disaster death despite dealing with multiple natural crises, said Albay Governor Joey Salceda.

The province is now well known across the Philippines for its effective disaster response and preparedness management with a “zero casualty” approach during disasters. Today nearly all of the provincial governments in the Philippines aim to replicate Albay’s successes in disaster management, officials say.

According to Salceda, the focus on ensuring “zero casualties” during disasters involves using a wide range of strategies, including risk mapping, comprehensive land use plans, early warning systems, evacuation planning and pre-emptive evacuations – such as that now happening with the volcano threat.

Other key parts of the strategy include ensuring adequate funding, good lines of communication with the media and the public, efforts to build the capacity of local officials to deal with disaster risk, and mainstreaming information about climate change and disaster risk management into the province’s education system, he said.

“Knowing that we have been experiencing calamities every year, we see to it that people are aware and prepared,” Salceda said. “But of course we need emergency and humanitarian assistance from international and national organisations to help us out.”

Key parts of the province’s success in preventing disaster deaths, the governor said, include the deployment of trained disaster personnel, military patrolling, early warning systems, evacuation, and distribution of food packs to the affected people in the communities. An added incentive for families to evacuate is a 5 kilo bag of rice each.

‘CULTURE OF READINESS’

“There is a culture of readiness in our communities already. We see to it that children as young as five years old are taught of disaster preparedness and climate change awareness as part of the curriculum,” Salceda said.

That preparedness may soon again be put to the test, with Mayon volcano emitting rocks and a white plume of volcanic ash and “still in a state of unrest”, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

The volcano’s alert status remains at Level 3, meaning that magma is at the crater and that a hazardous eruption is possible within weeks, Eduardo Laguerta, provincial volcanologist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“All scientific observations point to a possible eruption any time soon. We have been warning people to keep away from the eight kilometer extended danger zone due to rock falls, landslides and sudden explosions or dome collapse that may endanger lives,” Laguerta explained.

Cedric Daep, provincial director of the Public Safety and Emergency Management Office said military officials are patrolling an inner six-kilometer danger zone, making sure no residents remain. Heavy equipment, water tankers and vehicles for search, rescue and retrieval and for clearing operations are on standby, he said.

Drawing on lessons from past eruptions, such as in 1993 when more than 70 people were killed as they refused to leave their homes inside the danger zone, Daep said residents this time will remain in evacuation centers for months even after the eruption to avoid danger from subsequent mud flows.

The local government also is looking into construction of permanent relocation housing for 2,989 families living within a six-kilometre zone around the volcano, to try to avoid subjecting families to frequent evacuations.

“Our response system is far better now compared to the previous volcanic eruption events,” Daep told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Things are improving and there is a growing awareness to promote risk management and preparedness.”

Last week, a total of 540,000 food packs from the Department of Social Welfare and Development were distributed to 48 evacuation centers. The government is now constructing at least 327 toilets for the evacuees.

Imelda Abano is a freelance contributor for the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Manila. 

(Reporting by Imelda Abano; editing by Laurie Goering)

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