The big smoke
“I wasn’t supposed to cover the eruption of Mount Mayon at all. Like the rest of the world, I was looking at Mount Agung in Bali which was erupting and getting all the headlines. When my friend in Bali suggested I didn’t come as the place was already swamped with media, I instead went to the province of Albay in the Philippines. My theory about why Bali got all the attention is that because the airport in Denpasar had to be closed it inconvenienced holidaymakers from Australia, the US and the UK, whereas Mayon just affected Filipinos, so nobody cared. The airport in Denpasar handles more passengers in a few hours than Legazpi, near Mayon, handles in a week. But Mayon proved to be a more serious eruption and the much bigger story.
“The Philippines has a lot of experience of handling natural disasters. The country is in the ‘Ring of Fire’, an area around the Pacific which is the site of 75 percent of the world’s active volcanoes, with 22 in the Philippines alone. Filipinos are always living with the threat of a natural disaster hanging over them, but Mayon hadn’t had a major eruption since 2001. When it first started rumbling the general mood in the area was one of excitement – people thought, ‘This is going to be quite the show.’
“I talked to a volcanologist on my first day and he walked me through the stages of volcano alert from zero up to five. He said that Mount Mayon hadn’t been at zero since 2003 and that two is normal as there’s always some volcanic activity going on. When I arrived the level was at three. I said to him, ‘When it hits four, is that when you get people off the mountain?’ He said, ‘Oh no. When it hits three we have to evacuate because when it crosses to four there’s not going to be time’. The evacuations had started by that point, but people were slow to leave, as nobody takes a level three alert seriously. The next day we were at level four.
“I’ve covered eruptions before, but have never seen anything like what I witnessed in the Philippines. When Mayon erupted, it was pretty dramatic. We were having lunch and suddenly everybody started running into the street. We ran outside and there was this gigantic column of ash going into the air. I joined the people on the street and took a picture with vehicles in the foreground [above]. That column of smoke you can see is actually six kilometres away, that’s how huge the eruption was. It was one of my more memorable meals in the Philippines.
“People weren’t panicked; they started to drive away from the volcano, while we jumped in our car to drive towards it. The communities living around the volcano are very poor and most people earn a living though farming or mining. On the mountain we met a team of workers mining volcanic rock and sand in one of the mountain’s old lava flows, which dates back to 1814. While I was photographing them I heard a series of pretty loud explosions. My fixer came running up to me and said, ‘We have to go, we have to go now!’ I looked up and saw a new plume of smoke coming out of the volcano. Most of the workers stopped to look at it, but this guy with the red T-shirt [pictured right] just kept throwing volcanic sand into a strainer. He said, ‘Well, until the lava gets here we have to work.’ For these workers it was ‘We either do this or we don’t get paid.’ They couldn’t afford to take time off without pay just because the government said it was too dangerous to be standing on an erupting volcano.
“The day after the big eruption we visited a school in Guinobatan in Albay, 11 miles from the peak of Mount Mayon. We were upwind of the volcano so there was an ash fall in the town, and they handed out breathing masks for the kids to wear in school. Honestly, I don’t think those masks are very effective. I was shooting wearing goggles and a gas mask with my camera fully encased in underwater gear to protect it from the ash and there were these children wearing thin paper breathing filters nobody had told them how to use properly. I think the long-term effects might be serious. The day after I made this picture, I went back to the school to take some more pictures, and the kids were gone. They had all been evacuated to a centre well away from the slopes of the volcano.”
“Most of the evacuation centres were in schools. They would have four families in a classroom with blankets or sheets as dividers. When I first visited the evacuation centres before the major eruption I was surprised at how calm everybody was. People were very resigned about it. At this point, the evacuees had been there for three days and they said, ‘The government is taking care of us.’
“The atmosphere changed as more and more people arrived. A day after the eruption around 35,000 people had been evacuated. Within two days it was up to about 80,000 people. They kept extending the perimeter of the evacuation zone and moving people to schools further out, but there simply wasn’t the space for everyone. People were sleeping on the side of the road or building their own camps. Those camps were pretty heartbreaking. The people in the centres in the larger towns were getting supplies, but the people who couldn’t get beds in evacuation centres were not being looked after. And these were the poorest people, like the families of the miners I had met on the mountain. They were living on the side of the road because they had nowhere else to go.
“I was at one of the evacuation centres when a government water truck arrived and it was mobbed by people who hadn’t had clean water in over 24 hours. I was at another remote school where Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity was distributing food. A person at that centre told me this was the first time they had received any food in 24 hours. But the Red Cross, the Church and Filipino fast food chains were delivering aid to the evacuation centres, especially in larger communities, on a regular basis.
“The government was warning that, should the volcano hit level five, people would be in these centres for up to three months. My concern was that keeping 80,000 people in those squalid conditions for three months would turn into a nightmare. I saw a huge number of very pregnant women in the evacuation centres and lots of very old people and I was thinking, ‘Any day now women are going to start having babies and the old people are going to start dying.’
“The volcano calmed down and people started to return home. On 6th March the alert level went down to three, then on 29th March it went back to two. I don’t think that the long-term impact will be huge on bricks and mortar businesses, but the Filipino government wants to relocate farmers whose land was inside the new permanent closure zone and that will have a significant impact on their lives.
“Volcanologists have talked about us entering into a period of increased seismic activity and I am sure the Philippines will witness more eruptions. My experience suggests to me that the country is not prepared. If the Mount Mayon eruption had been sustained, I think we would have had a humanitarian crisis on our hands. The Philippine government had talked about carrying out mass evacuations by sea, but that would be a very difficult thing to organise. Thankfully that did not have to happen and I feel lucky to have witnessed nature at her most dramatic without it causing a catastrophe. I hope that lessons have been learnt so the same is true when an eruption hits level five.”
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