One year on from Taal volcano eruption, little reprieve for Filipinos forced to flee homes

BATANGAS, Philippines: When the Philippines’ second most active volcano Taal erupted in 1965, Teodora Caraig, born and brought up on Volcano Island, fled but returned a year later. She went on to raise her children and grandchildren on the island, which sits on a lake and surrounds the crater of Taal Volcano. 

These days, the 85-year-old prefers not to think of the island. 

Volcano Island was once home to generations of families like hers. They made their living fishing, farming and guiding thrill-seeking tourists around an active volcano – one of 24 in the Philippines. 

That’s all gone now.

READ: An island, a volcano, a home: Taal was where these Filipinos lived and made their living

Taal roared to life in 2020, forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes. 

“Our house, all our belongings are under heaps of ash,” Mrs Caraig told CNA from the emergency tent that she and her children have lived in for the past year.

On Jan 12, 2020, Taal’s continuous eruption created a steam-laden column up to 15km high and spewed ash which fell more than a hundred kilometres away in the capital region Metro Manila. 

A view of Taal Volcano a year since its eruption. (Image: Robert Malicsi)

Residents fled in droves, as the state-declared danger zone expanded from 7km to 14km in a matter of hours. But before that eruption on Jan 12, Volcano Island had already been declared a permanent danger zone. 

After the 1965 eruption, residents still had homes to return to, recalled Mrs Caraig. Not this time. There are hints of vegetation a year on, but for the most parts, what was once lush green land is now a cold grey. 

Mrs Caraig said life on the mainland, away from Volcano Island, still takes some getting used to. “Everything here is bought,” she said, when asked how her family set up the bamboo poles that held up the roofed open-air extension to their emergency tent.

Teodora Caraig was only 30 when she survived the 1965 eruption

Teodora Caraig was only 30 when she survived the 1965 eruption. (Image: Robert Malicsi)

It’s a far cry from the self-sufficient lives they once led – food from the crops they grew, water fetched from the lake. Solar panels provided electricity, and their fish pens were near the shore so small, non-motorised boats were all they needed. 

Now, to get by, they sell home-cooked snacks to mainland villagers. The evacuation site housing Mrs Caraig and her children was meant provide temporary shelter, but like hundreds of former Volcano Island residents in similar sites, they face permanent displacement from the island they once called home.

Families are still in emergency tents a year since the eruption

Families are still in emergency tents a year since the eruption. (Image: Robert Malicsi)

According to government data, almost 870 people displaced by the 2020 eruption are still in temporary evacuation centres in Talisay town, Batangas province. The estimates are conservative, as these figures pertain to centres located in one town alone. 

Taal evacuation centres chart

In one such temporary evacuation site, partition tents have been set up on what would have been the car park of an unfinished building. Only parts of the car park are laid with cement; dirt covers the rest of it. 

Taal volcano evacuation camp 2

Temporary evacuation site in Talisay town, Batangas province for people displaced by the eruption of Taal volcano in the Philippines. (Sourced photo)


At 55, fisherman Romeo Laluz, born and raised on Volcano Island, has been unable to find work on the mainland work matching his skillset. His younger counterparts have fared slightly better, working in construction and drawing weekly wages. 

Fisherman Romeo Laluz heads to their fish pen

Fisherman Romeo Laluz heads to his fish pen. (Image: Robert Malicsi)

With few options, Mr Laluz has gone back to what he knows best, venturing out of the evacuation site every morning to a fish pen his family set up near Volcano Island. This brings in US$10 a week, six times less than what he used to earn on the island before Taal erupted. 

“Our livelihoods on Volcano Island before were good. Tourists would come and we would ferry them back and forth as boatmen. Income was good before the eruption,” he said. 

Mr Laluz’s expenses have also gone up. Now, he has to buy fuel for motorised boat trips each time he heads out to his fish pen. Water and electricity, previously provided by the lake and solar power, are also extra bills he has to contend with. 

Mr Laluz said he makes between US$4 and US$6 on a good day. But sometimes, there is no income. 

“Depends on your luck that day,” he quipped. 

The Laluz family watches TV at home after Romeo arrives from his boat trip (1)

The Laluz family watches TV at home after Romeo returns from his boat trip. (Image: Robert Malicsi)

The Laluz family now live in a government housing project in Balete town, southeast of Volcano Island, set up before the eruption. 

The monthly instalment for the house started at US$6 and will increase gradually to a possible US$30. It will take Mr Laluz 30 years to pay off the house. “I would be dead by then,” he said ruefully. 

WATCH: One year on, life for residents living near Philippines’ Taal volcano remains tough 

The monthly payments are just one of the family’s many financial worries, said Mercy, Mr Laluz’s wife. The family enjoyed a small reprieve when the instalments were suspended after the eruption, but only for a year. 

“We started paying again on Jan 5, but we have no stable income. We used to get it from the island,” Mrs Laluz said.  

“We had a livelihood on the island, but we are no longer permitted to return,” she added. “My children are still in school and not working.” 

The Laluz family watches TV at home after Romeo arrives from his boat trip

The Laluz family watches TV at home after Romeo returns from his boat trip. (Image: Robert Malicsi)

As the family’s sole breadwinner, Mr Laluz works hard to provide for his wife and children, two of whom are in college. 

“I worry what will happen when I’m gone. My children can find jobs. But I labour each day for their education, so they don’t end up like me who didn’t finish school due to poverty,” he said. 

Mr Laluz’s children help out occasionally when he heads out to fish. But he will not allow any of them to work full-time before they graduate college, no matter how hard it gets for him, so that they are not tempted to drop out of school. 

“I remind my eldest to finish school and not to marry too soon, so he can help his siblings and the family. Just to help give our family some relief. We don’t need to be rich. Just a little relief such that I no longer need to cross the lake each day to fish, since I am also of age,” he said. 

Romeo Laluz hops on a smaller boat to go nearer a fish pen

Romeo Laluz hops on a smaller boat to go nearer a fish pen. (Image: Robert Malicsi)


Still, despite the hardship, Mr Laluz can consider himself lucky, having secured proper housing before the eruption. Those who came after him have had to make do with tents and temporary structures. 

Other displaced Volcano Island residents settled in a housing community in Balete town

Other displaced Volcano Island residents settled in a housing community in Balete town, living in emergency tents the past year. (Image: Robert Malicsi)

Fifty-five-year-old Editha Malapitan and her extended family live in one of these tents in Balete. They depend on the generosity of their neighbours – the ones who live in actual houses – for basic necessities like water, electricity and even toilet facilities. 

Donations, which went some way to alleviate the hardship, plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. “It’s hard living here. Sometimes we have no money, no food,” she lamented. “When it rains, sometimes we get wet. But, of course, we put up with it. There’s nowhere else to live.”

Editha Malapitan sweeps the floor of an emergency tent

Editha Malapitan sweeps the floor of an emergency tent. (Image: Robert Malicsi)

The women that CNA spoke to said they have even fewer opportunities for work on the mainland. With the meagre takings from their husbands’ fishing as capital, they sometimes sell cooked snacks to supplement the household income. 

One of Mrs Malapitan nephews asked when they would return to Pulo – the term locals use to refer to Volcano Island. The adults laughed, and then fell silent. 

“We tell the kids we can no longer go back to Pulo, as there is nothing there,” said Mrs Malapitan. “Everything is buried. Our house there no longer stands. Washed out. Our animals, our belongings. We weren’t able to get any of them. 

“We left the island with only our bodies and the clothes we wore.”  

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More Filipinos express confidence in government’s anti-corruption efforts

MORE FILIPINOS are confident that the government is doing well in tackling corruption compared with Asian neighbors, although they also believe corruption in government remains a big problem, a survey from Transparency International showed. Read the full story.

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50% of Filipinos must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity vs COVID-19


AT least half of the population needs to be vaccinated for the country to achieve herd immunity against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a health official said.

“If we are talking about herd immunity, we need to reach 50% to 60% across the population so it’s really important we expand the coverage,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said in an interview with ANC on Friday.

Herd immunity is when most of the population becomes immune from an infectious disease, either through vaccination or a previous infection, thus indirectly protecting those without immunization.

A Social Weather Stations survey released late Thursday indicates 66% of Filipinos are keen to get experimental COVID-19 vaccines.

The mobile phone survey, conducted September 17 to 20, shows that of the 66% Filipinos who are “willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine if it is available now” consists of 32% who would “definitely” get it and 34% who “probably would.”

Those unwilling are 31%.

Respondents of the non-commissioned survey were 1,249 adult Filipinos with data gathered through mobile phone and computer-assisted telephone interviewing.

The government earlier said it will procure 50 million doses, with priority to be given to frontline workers and indigents.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Director General Rolando Enrique D. Domingo said on Friday that the President’s approval of protocols for the emergency use of coronavirus vaccines would mean it will be distributed and administered faster.

Mr. Enriquez, in a virtual briefing Friday, explained that the emergency use authorization (EUA) means vaccines could be approved for use before the projected 2021 second quarter timeline.

“Once we are given the authority to issue the EUA, the FDA will come up with the guidelines, the process,” he said. He added that other countries have already issued such approval on certain vaccines.

The Palace on Thursday said President Rodrigo R. Duterte has approved “in principle” the vaccine emergency use and will soon be issuing an executive order, which will cut the approval process of vaccines to 21 days from the usual six months.

The Department of Health (DoH) reported 1,639 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, bringing the total to 415,067, of which 31,805 or 7.7% are active cases.

The DoH also reported an additional 305 new recoveries, putting the tally at 375,237. Newly-reported deaths were 27 for a total of 8,025. Among the active cases, 84.7% were mild , 81.% asymptomatic, 4.5% critical, 2.4% severe, and 0.21% moderate. — Gillian M. Cortez

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Banyan – Filipinos working abroad are a source of money, not reform | Asia

NINE MONTHS after Taal volcano erupted, life in the Calabarzon region of the Philippines, south of the capital, Manila, is slowly returning to normal, despite the raging pandemic. Cinders buried houses, destroyed papaya plantations and sent tens of thousands fleeing. Today, the roads have been cleared and the power is back on. Evacuees have returned to patch up homes. Local distilleries producing lambanog, a fierce spirit made from fermented palm sap, have sputtered to life. Few locals, though, are holding their breath for the promised splurge of government assistance. That leaves only one sure source of income: remittances from relatives working abroad.

The 2.2m Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs, as they are typically known) are feted nationally for their sacrifices. Nearly half toil in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states as maids, drivers or hotel staff. All hotel bands in China seem to have a Filipina singer. Hong Kong has more than 150,000 OFWs and Singapore 120,000, most of them women working as domestic helpers and nannies. Central Hong Kong on a Sunday is like the Philippines writ small: a pavement map of the country’s many languages as Filipinas gather with friends from their region.

A fifth of all OFWs are from Calabarzon. One, Bernadette, is a nanny in Hong Kong. Her home in Calaca, in the shadow of the volcano, escaped the worst of the ash fall. But many of her friends have been sending what money they earn (just over HK$5,000, or $645, a month) to help rebuild homes and livelihoods destroyed by the eruption.

In other respects, Bernadette’s story is typical. The 40-year-old has worked in Hong Kong for a decade, far from her husband and son. She supports not only them but an elderly father with big medical bills. She has put the son, now 17, through boarding school. Her six siblings call on her when they have a financial emergency. Through all this, she has bought a plot of land back home and built a two-storey house. She and many other OFWs are immensely proud of what they have accomplished. They are welcomed on their annual Christmas trip home (cancelled this year because of the pandemic) as bayani, or heroes. Huge parties are thrown for them. They nearly always pay.

OFWs are only one part of a 10m-strong Philippine diaspora. Without the Philippines’ 378,000 seafarers, the global merchant fleet would be sunk. Nurses, doctors and oil and mining engineers the world over make up an expatriate professional class. In all, the diaspora sends home $30bn a year, a tenth of GDP.

Politicians recognise the political and economic clout of expatriates. In Calaca, says Bernadette, they woo OFWs with promises of jobs when they return, scholarships for their children or health insurance—“but they are just trying to get our vote.” Presidential candidates or their proxies come to Hong Kong for rallies. Not only do OFWs’ votes count, but loved ones at home will listen to them.

On occasion, expats’ social-media campaigns have drawn attention to government corruption or incompetence, such as after the deadly Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Some academics hope that expatriates, when they return, can in future help reshape the country’s politics, demanding better government and a more responsive approach to the country’s inequalities in the place of graft and the cult of the strongman. There are too few signs of that happening. OFWs do not yet represent the kind of middle class capable of urging change. While remittances can enable upward mobility—Bernadette’s son plans to study aeronautical engineering—they can just as easily be spent by husbands on booze, roast pigs, gambling and lovers. Professionals, meanwhile, are more likely to emigrate permanently.

One professional returnee, Ronald Mendoza, dean of the school of government at Ateneo de Manila University, posits another factor: OFWs work largely in authoritarian places, where the model of the strongman is rarely questioned.

Most Filipinas in Hong Kong, for example, were bemused by recent pro-democracy protests and approve of their suppression. As for President Rodrigo Duterte, who embodies personal rule and promotes vigilante justice, he remains wildly popular among OFWs. When, at home, this columnist lamented that 18 journalists have been murdered while Mr Duterte has been unremittingly hostile to the press, his Filipina cleaner was indignant, taking it as an insult to her president. Banyan was impelled to mutter an apology.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Money but not a class”

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