Emergency alert system on Taal eruption failed

An eyewitness account
I WRITE this at this time not to blame the government agencies in charge of it, but in order for them to fix their emergency alert system asap, given the uncertainty that, according to our volcano experts, there is still the possibility of a more violent eruption than the one that occurred on January 12.

If such a second eruption occurs, and they haven’t fixed their emergency alert system yet, I’m certain that this time around, there will be huge casualties, caught flat-footed because they hadn’t been warned on time.

The emergency alert system the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) operates didn’t work last Sunday to warn residents that could be affected by Taal’s eruption.

I was an eyewitness to this as I happened to be in Tagaytay that day playing golf at the Splendido Golf Club, whose coffee shop had a spectacular view of Taal Lake, when the volcano exploded.

The day, month, or even year a volcano erupts is of course unpredictable, as our volcano experts have emphasized in their briefings, since, unlike typhoons, the explosive magma’s movement towards the surface cannot be seen, and can only be surmised by its effects, such as earthquakes, changes in the land’s elevations, and cracks on the earth’s surface.

Taal eruption, photo taken at 5:51 p.m., January 12, 18 km from crater. No emergency alert from NDRRMC. Phivolcs would raise alert level from 3 to 4 only at 7:30 p.m. (Photo by author.)

Still though, there is at least a day’s period that the magma’s movement is detectable –among others because of the frequency of the earthquakes it creates and the build-up of heat, that volcanologists can predict with confidence that a particular volcano will be erupting very soon. This in fact happened in 1991 when the Americans evacuated swiftly and on a massive scale their troops and residents out of Clark Air Base, to evade Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption that occurred two days later.

Eruption
In the case of last Sunday’s eruption, even as tourists and residents in Tagaytay (and of course in the areas circling the volcano island) were witnessing what was no doubt a hazardous volcano eruption that started at 2:30 p.m., the NDRRMC issued its first bulletin on the event that threatened lives only the next day, at 6 a.m.

While it had in the past sent cellphone “blasts” – which many really found irritating – on typhoons, most of which were far away from those who received it in the past, the NDRRMC had not a single such alert on January 12. Tagaytay’s ridge became crowded with locals and tourists watching Taal erupt, everyone feeling safe since authorities had not issued an emergency alert.

Authorities should investigate to determine if the NDRRMC was sleeping on the job (not unlikely since it was a Sunday), or if the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) had failed to inform it for it to implement its emergency alert system that morning. Or perhaps Phivolcs did send its bulletin to the NDRRMC but in the scientific lingo Phivolcs has become known for, and some low-ranking council bureaucrat on duty at that time failed to realize the gravity of the situation.

There was more than enough time for the NDRRMC to issue an emergency alert, as will be clear in the following chronology.

First smoke
It was at around 2 p.m. that the first smoke from the volcano’s crater appeared. By 3:30 p.m., one could hardly doubt that it had erupted.

Korean golfers at Splendido continued to enjoy their post-game beer-drinking session, taking selfies, of course with the eruption in the background. Such insouciance was obviously because NRRMCC had not sent out an alert that a dangerous volcano eruption was occurring.

This is also the reason why not a few weddings that were going on as the volcano erupted that Sunday in Tagaytay– which has been called the country’s “wedding capital” – continued as if nothing was happening, resulting in such now-famous images of a couple tying the knot in front of the eruption’s frightening column of debris. Romantic certainly, and now world-famous images, but there were horror stories of a couple and their guests at a wedding place in Taal’s lakeshore issuing a call through Facebook begging to be rescued.

4 p.m. January 12: Koreans at Splendido Golf Club, enjoying the spectacle. Thirty minutes later, there would be panic to leave Tagaytay, creating a horrendous traffic jam. (Photo by author.)

By 4:17 p.m., no one could doubt that it was an eruption, which at least from a layman’s point of view, was as violent as Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. It looked to me like an apocalyptic scene straight out of a Mt. Vesuvius movie, with lightning ringing the volcano’s smoke and debris and the smell of sulfur so powerful – even as I was standing so far, 18 kilometers away.

By 5 p.m., the Koreans and other tourists, and even residents in Tagaytay, realized what was happening and moved to leave the area in a panic. The result was a horrendous traffic jam at the Tagaytay to Sta. Rosa road. It was a nightmare for those who evacuated, as they were stuck in traffic the whole night as the ashfall slowly began, covering their windshields to zero visibility. Most got to reach Makati or Alabang only early in the morning – all because there was no emergency alert about the eruption.

When did Phivolcs issue their bulletins on the eruption?

Its first bulletin that day was issued at 8 a.m., which said: “Alert Level 1 remains in effect over Taal Volcano. This means that hazardous eruption is not imminent.”

The first bulletin on the eruption that day was at 2:30 p.m. which raised the alert status since March last year from “Alert Level 1 (abnormal) to Alert Level 2 (increasing unrest).“

“This means,” the bulletin said, “that there is magmatic intrusion that may or may not lead to an eruption.”

Magmatic
At 4 p.m, it issued another bulletin raising the alert level from 2 to 3 (magmatic unrest). “This means that there is magmatic intrusion that is likely driving the current activity,” the bulletin said.

Romantic certainly, but due to a massive failure of the government’s emergency alert system. Photo from volcanocafe.org
4 p.m. January 12: Koreans at Splendido Golf Club, enjoying the spectacle. Thirty minutes later, there would be panic to leave Tagaytay, creating a horrendous traffic jam. Photo by author

It was only at 7:30 p.m., three hours after people saw the frightening volcanic column reaching the zenith, horrific lightning circling it, that Phivolcs issued another bulletin raising the alert level from 3 to 4, which it defined as “hazardous eruption imminent.”

I’m sure few editors sitting at their news desks, without reports from their reporters in the field, would not have understood those bulletins, with their terminology, to realize a volcano was exploding, that ashfall would commence, and that a bigger risk would be that now much discussed “base surge” – the extremely hot-gases expanding at ground level at speeds not even a car could evade.

I kept checking the news sites and broadcast media on what was going on — until I and my family decided to evacuate the area around 5 p.m. — yet getting nothing on it.

Perhaps Phivolcs failed to tell NDRMMC in plain language in the morning: “Hey guys Taal will be exploding soon, based on our monitoring.” Then by 4:30,“Hey guys, Taal is exploding, better issue your warning through TV, radio, and cellphone blast.”

If I missed the alerts that Taal was set to explode that day, I’m certain most people in Tagaytay and in the coastal towns in the danger zone also didn’t, because the emergency alert system failed.

In Japan, when tsunamis – which is as unpredictable as volcano explosions because it is caused by earthquakes beneath the sea – are known to be hitting a coastal area even an hour later, there are fire engines, police cars, and other government vehicles going around the town with blaring sirens, and loud warnings for people to flee and seek higher ground, giving the sick and elderly enough time to evacuate.

There wasn’t a single alerting vehicle in Tagaytay and in the towns around Taal on January 12.

If there had been casualties, I’m sure there would have been a huge outrage against Phivolcs and especially NDRMMC.

 


 

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