A volcano south of the Philippine capital has sent a massive plume of ash and steam spewing miles into the sky and pushed red-hot lava out of its crater, prompting the evacuation of thousands of people and the closure of Manila’s airport.
In a matter of hours on Sunday, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology raised the alert level for Taal Volcano from level 1 to 4 — level 5 being the highest. It warned that a larger “explosive eruption” could occur within hours or days.
There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage from the initial eruption, but authorities advised a total evacuation within a 14-kilometer (8.7-mile) radius of the volcano, which is located about 45 miles south of Manila.
Dozens of earthquakes preceded Sunday’s eruption and authorities warned that a tsunami was possible in the freshwater lake surrounding the volcano. Flashes of lightning lit up the plume, lending the scene an otherworldly appearance.
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The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council, the Philippines’ disaster-response agency, said 13,000 villagers were moved away from the area to evacuation centers in Batangas and Cavite Provinces. It said nearly 25,000 people had been displaced by the eruption.
Some residents refused to leave their homes and farms, officials said, while others reportedly could not leave because of a lack of transport or poor visibility due to the thick ash, the AP says.
“Our people are panicking due to the volcano because they want to save their livelihood, their pigs and herds of cows,” Mayor Wilson Maralit of Balete town told local DZMM radio, according to the news agency. “We’re trying to stop them from returning and warning that the volcano can explode again anytime and hit them.”
The Volcanology Institute cautioned that fine ashfall could causing breathing problems, especially among young children and the elderly and advised the public in affected areas to use face masks or wet towels to protect themselves. It also advised motorists that the ash could reduce visibility and make roads slippery.
In Manila, long lines formed at shops selling face masks, with many residents no doubt remembering the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, about 55 miles northwest of the capital, an eruption that killed more than 350 people and blanketed the area for miles around in thick ash.
“Taal is a very small volcano, but a dangerous volcano,” Renato Solidum, the head of the Volcanology Institute, told Reuters.
Ash clouds stretched 62 miles north, forcing authorities to shut down Ninoy Aquino International Airport, causing the cancellation of more than 500 international and domestic flights, according to The Associated Press. The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said it would also shut down an airfield at Clark Freeport Zone, home of the former U.S. air base, if ash threatened fights there.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s office ordered a halt to government work in Manila and the closure of all schools in the capital. It advised private companies to do the same.
The area immediately around Taal has been designated a “permanent danger zone.” It last erupted in 1977 and another eruption in 1911 killed an estimated 1,500 people.
NPR’s Julie McCarthy in Santo Tomas, Batangas Province, contributed to this report.