'No man's land': Duterte declares Taal Volcano island off-limits

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday, January 15, declared the island volcano of Taal off-limits due to experts' advice that hazardous eruption remains possible within hours to days.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed this in a text message to Rappler on Wednesday, saying "all recommendations by the NDRRMC (National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council) and Phivolcs (Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology) were approved earlier by the President." 

Lorenzana said Interior Secretary Eduardo Año will be in charge of implementing the order and that Año claimed funds were needed to relocate the estimated 4,000 people who live in the island.

Precautionary measures: The order was based on the proposal of Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato dela Peña and Lorenzana, who both urged for a "no human settlement" policy to prevent further casualties in the event Taal Volcano erupts again in the future.

On Wednesday, Phivolcs warned the public that Taal Volcano could still have a "hazardous" eruption "within hours to days" as it has recorded a total of 466 volcanic earthquakes since 1 pm last Sunday, January 12. Of these tremors, 156 were felt with intensities ranging from Intensity I to V.

State volcanologists said the "intense seismic activity probably signifies continuous magmatic intrusion beneath the Taal edifice, which may lead to further eruptive activity."

Phivolcs likewise underscored there must be "total evacuation" of Taal Volcano Island, extending to high-risk areas within a 14-kilometer radius from the main crater and "along the Pansipit River Valley where fissuring has been observed."

As of Wednesday, the volcano remained on Alert Level 4, which means a hazardous eruption is "imminent."

Make no attempt: In a statement on Wednesday, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) said the Philippine National Police (PNP) has been directed to stop and prevent individuals from returning to the island to save animals and salvage what was left of their belongings. 

"Without clearances from Phivolcs the island is strictly off limits and the Secretary has given instructions to the PNP to enforce this directive.... It is simply too dangerous for anyone to go back to the island. Human lives must be our first priority," DILG Undersecretary and spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said.

During a visit to residents affected by the eruption of the Taal volcano and heavy ashfall that followed, Duterte told residents,"Nobody is allowed to go back until such time that you are safe."

So far, Batangas is among the areas most affected by Taal's eruption, with the entire province placed under a state of calamity. At least 40,000 people have been forced to evacuate, many of them fearing what will happen to them, their homes, and their livelihood. – with reports from JC Gotinga and Rambo Talabong/Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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