Philippine volcano 'may erupt within days'

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Scientists in the Philippines have raised the alert level for the volatile volcano Mount Mayon, amid fears of an imminent eruption. The cone-shaped volcano has already been emitting lava and ash for days. About 40,000 people who live near Mount Mayon have been moved to temporary shelters. Marco Werman gets the latest from reporter Sunshine DeLeon in Manilla.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is the World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. The Mayon Volcano in the Philippines is acting up. Mayon has been oozing lava and shooting up columns of ash for a week now, and authorities say it could blow soon. People who live near the 8,000-foot-high volcano have been evacuated to temporary shelters. Reporter Sunshine DeLeon is in Manila and is following the unfolding story. Sunshine, first of all, President Gloria Arroyo visited this area today just south of Manila on the Island of Luzon. Is this a measure of how seriously the country is bracing for a possible disaster?

SUNSHINE DELEON: I think it's definitely a measure of that. I think it also shows that they've learned from the last disaster, Typhoon Ondoy where government was not as prepared as some people would've liked them to have been. So I think she wanted to make sure that everything's in place, and they're aware of the kind of damage that a dramatic eruption could do.

WERMAN: Reports are saying that 50,000 people have been evacuated. Has that been done in a fairly organized way?

DELEON: Yeah, it seems that way because they've already put them in 26 evacuation centers, which are mostly schools and gymnasiums spread around the city. And when the evacuees arrive, they're given sleeping mats, facemasks, and food supplies, enough to last them through the holidays.

WERMAN: Now, these people have been evacuated to the City of Legaspi. I suppose that's well enough away from the actual cone of the volcano that everybody's gonna be safe.

DELEON: Yeah, the area in which they are keeping as their declared danger zone is a five-mile radius from the volcano's crater. There's been a lot of seismic activity in the last ten days, and it's been continuous, so there's a lot of rumblings and quakes and emissions of sulfur dioxide and everything seems to be increasing and indicating that a hazardous eruption can occur any time, but no one really knows when, so people are just trying to prepare.

WERMAN: With the evacuations and all the seismic activity, it's still definitely a dangerous situation.

DELEON: Right now the alert level is at four, which according to PHIVOLCS, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, means that a hazardous exposed eruption is imminent, but no one knows if it's gonna happen within hours or days.

WERMAN: Here we've got Ed Laguerta, who's the resident volcanologist basically breaking it down.

ED LAGUERTA: We're still expecting that there will be a more hazardous or explosive eruptions in the coming days, so we're just awaiting for this because of what the volcano is spewing us.

WERMAN: Obviously, just waiting for this thing to blow. What is the history of the Mayon Volcano? I mean, when was the last time it blew?

DELEON: The Mayon Volcano is actually the most active volcano of the 22 volcanoes in the country, and the last time it erupted was 2006. And after that eruption, the volcano oozed lava and steam and ash for two months. It erupted about 40 times over the last 400 years, but never during Christmas.

WERMAN: Right, and because it's over Christmas, I understand that some of the 50,000 people, who've been evacuated are actually trying to sneak back to celebrate a traditional Christmas. What are authorities doing about that?

DELEON: They're actually being very creative about this. The police and soldiers have put on Santa hats and clown noses and visited different schools and got the children and families singing and dancing. Air Force and Army, Navy personnel have organized games and shown movies, even bible readings, anything to keep everybody entertained and distracted from not being home.

WERMAN: Anything but go back to the vicinity of the volcano, I suppose.

DELEON: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of reason why people are tempted to go back. They're worried about their property and their livestock and their farms because they realize that they need to have a livelihood after the volcano erupts, if it does erupt. They wanna check on that. The provincial government has also committed to giving 5 kilos of rice everyday for each family as an incentive to stay there.

WERMAN: Does it seem to be working?

DELEON: I think that between the promise of food, and feeling that they're being cared for and not just sort of abandoned in the centers, is making people more likely to want to stay there.

WERMAN: Reporter Sunshine DeLeon in Manila, the Philippines, about 200 miles north of the Mayon Volcano. Thanks for the update.

DELEON: Sure, no problem, my pleasure.