As the whole nation awaits the fireworks at the stroke of midnight tonight ushering the start of the Chinese New Year, there is an even bigger fireworks brewing down south of Manila.
It concerns the seemingly contradicting positions of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and some local officials as regards a lockdown order that prevents people from returning to their homes and tourist-oriented Tagaytay from reopening businesses in the city overlooking the scenic but deadly Taal Volcano.
It also involves the stubborn stand by a few town officials that residents be allowed to go back to their properties following what they claimed as the simmering down of the volcano.
This is, however, far from the truth.
Following its phreatic eruption that broke over four decades of silence, Taal continued to rumble underneath, showing signs of renewed magma activity that has forced the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) to maintain Alert Level 4, meaning a hazardous eruption could occur anytime soon.
This meant the mandatory evacuation of residents at the volcano island and in the outlying towns within a 14-kilometer radius of the volcano. The initial blast, while catching everybody by surprise, did not claim any casualty, but the resulting ashfall affected the surrounding areas and reached as far up north as Metro Manila.
Tagaytay, like most Batangas towns in the vicinity of the active volcano, was not spared by the sulfuric blanket, forcing most establishments to close and tourists from coming over to the city by the ridge. They have become ghost towns.
Affected residents, meantime, were forced to flee in the safety of evacuation centers scattered around the vicinity of Taal. While the evacuees rued being separated from their animals and livelihood, Tagaytay reeled from the lack of activity in the once bustling tourist destination.
Despite a DILG order of a lockdown in nearly 200 villages, residents have sneaked in and returned to their homes while many commercial establishments in Tagaytay have reopened following the go-signal of the city mayor whose brother, now a senator, also once served in the same position. Local authorities also told the same to hotels, restaurants and other tourist spots.
A vice mayor of a Batangas town went on air to defy the order, as he urged his townspeople to go back to their respective homes, even going to the extent of saying that the danger which Phivolcs chief Renato Solidum has been talking about was merely an opinion.
The town official’s pronouncements are indeed so sad.
Solidum and his staff are scientists who study and evaluate historical data and know fully well how certain volcanoes behave. Were it not for the timely intervention of then Phivolcs director Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan and his staff, Mt. Pinatubo’s cataclysmic eruption in 1991 could have claimed more lives.
Just like Taal, Pinatubo’s unrest started two months before with a series of small steam explosions before unleashing its full might on 15 June of that year.
Volcanologists would be the first to admit that forecasting what a volcano will do next is a challenge.
When Taal erupted last 12 January, Phivolcs was criticized for not warning the people in advance. But now that it is waving around its warning that Taal is still under Alert Level 4 and could pose a danger to people’s lives, establishments refuse to listen and stubborn town officials disregard the risks of returning prematurely in the wake of the continuing tantrums of the volcano.
Millennials have a term for this kind of belligerent leaders. They call them pasaway, meaning people who don’t want to be bound by restrictions or anything that could prevent them from doing what they wish to do.
Here we have authorities trying to keep them away from harm’s way and we have as many pasaways in our midst. They have not learned from the lessons of the past.
Tonight, as we await the Chinese New Year fireworks, people around Taal could very well do the same — heed authorities and anticipate a bigger bang from the volcano in our midst.
We all don’t want to regret the consequences.