BRACING FOR THE 'BIG BANG' Mt. Mayon shoots huge ash column

LEGAZPI CITY — The country’s most active volcano shot ash into the sky Wednesday as officials tried to bring Christmas cheer to tens of thousands of people fleeing a possible major eruption.
Mount Mayon’s kilometer-high column alarmed residents and officials, who have been bracing for a major explosion since last week, when the volcano started oozing lava and belching steam and ash.
“This is going to be a very sad Christmas,” said 36-year-old Violeta Abejoro, one of over 47,000 people who have fled Mayon’s foothills after the volcano began angrily spewing ash, smoke and lava last week.
“I can’t get them to stop crying,” the frustrated mother said of her five children, the youngest of whom is barely a year old and has colic.
At the evacuation camps, military and police personnel with Santa hats tried to coax carols from the children, who were transfixed by the eerie scene of a thick ash cloud trailing from Mayon’s peak.
Other children scrambled to fall in line after being promised ice cream cones and other Christmas treats.
Head volcanologist Renato Solidum said Mayon’s increasing seismic activity could be a sign of a major eruption but was not enough to warrant raising the alert level to the highest level on a five-point scale.
“It has intensified since we hoisted level four, and there have been new explosions,” Solidum said.
The tendency of the volcano is that the pressure is getting stronger and stronger and this could lead to a major explosion.
“Mayon remains at a very critical level,” he said, adding that the alert level of four means that an eruption could occur within hours or days.
The explosion also underscored the urgency of convincing an estimated 500 hold-outs to abandon their homes and farms inside an eight-kilometer radius danger zone, officials said.
The ash and debris blanketed surrounding villages and towns with a thin layer of fine particles that health officials warn could cause respiratory and skin problems.
Tens of thousands of families now in the evacuation camps complained of a lack of food, blankets and sanitary packs.
For 42-year-old taxi operator Narciso Marama, who family lives just outside the danger zone, Mayon has been both a blessing and a curse.
For years the volcano has attracted tourists to the province, but it has also caused misery for his family, he said.
“They may have snowfalls in other parts of the world, but here, we have ashfall,” the father of four told AFP.
“It’s a white Christmas for us too, but this is ash, and we have to wear face masks.”
He said he had relatives inside the danger zone who were among those who had been relocated, but his own family had not been moved.
“But if there is a huge eruption, we may also be forced to leave,” he said. “I can still remember the devastation three years ago.”
When Mayon last erupted in 2006 it oozed lava and vented steam and ash for two months. No one died directly from the eruption, but a powerful typhoon three months later dislodged tonnes of debris that had collected on its slopes, burying entire towns and killing over 1,000 people.
Marama’s house was among those crushed in the mudslide, but no family members were killed.
“We lost everything we owned and had to rebuild from scratch,” Marama said.
“I still have nightmares from that incident. I am praying that no one is killed this time.”
The government has evacuated more than 47,000 people from the danger zone around Mayon to 26 evacuation centres in anticipation of a hazardous eruption. But authorities say about 500 villagers have refused to abandon their homes.
Governor Joey Salceda said resources were fast being strained and declared the area “open season for aid.”
“They (aid agencies) don’t need to come to my office to deliver aid anymore, they can go direct to the centers,” he said
(The Freeman)

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