Heavy rain is compounding the threat to villages surrounding the Philippines' Mount Mayon, a volcano that has been belching fumes, ash, and lava for the past two weeks.
The State Vulcanology Institute says lahar, or mudflow carrying volcanic debris, is a major threat to the low-lying communities surrounding the volcano. Officials warn that boulders rolling down the volcano's slopes could wipe out entire houses. And lava, or molten rock, carried in the lahar can destroy anything in its path.
Some 81,000 people have evacuated the nine-kilometer "danger zone" around Mayon. The threat level is at 4 on a five point scale, as experts warn a full eruption could come at any time.
The Philippines National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said Friday that classes had been suspended in 117 towns and cities near the area and that nearly 100 flights had been canceled since January 22, as the community remains braced for disaster.
Mayon, the Philippines' most active volcano, continues to belch fountains of red-hot lava and ash plumes reaching as high as three kilometers above the crater, according to the latest report from the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. The institute said Friday that swiftly moving walls of superheated gas and volcanic material were being detected more than five kilometers from the summit crater.
Lengthy displacement possible
Officials warned that residents taking shelter in 69 area evacuation centers might remain displaced for as long as three months, based on the volcano's previous eruptions.
Experts said Friday that the volcano might have expelled about 30 percent of its molten material, but its swollen sides still indicated a powerful eruption might be coming.
A spokeswoman for the disaster council, Romina Marasigan, told reporters, "We remain on red alert." In addition to those taking shelter in evacuation centers, she said, nearly 12,000 people have gone to stay with friends or relatives, or are staying in tents outside the danger zone, which is considered to be anywhere within eight kilometers of the volcano.
Some residents who refused to leave were being compelled to evacuate by local officials.
News reports said there were already concerns about hygiene at the evacuation centers. Government officials admitted there were not enough toilets.
Nestor Santiago, assistant secretary at the Philippines health ministry, told reporters that the province "is doing everything to close the gaps for these toilet facilities."
Health care workers also fear that falling ash will cause or exacerbate respiratory ailments at the centers. A further danger is lahar, or flows of volcanic material that can stream down the sides of the volcano and devastate everything in its path.
Maria Evelyn Grollo, who was managing a grade school-turned-shelter for more than 4,000 people near Legazpi city, told the Manila Bulletin that some evacuees were going back to their properties inside the danger zone during the days to check on their houses and property, and returning to the evacuation shelters at night. A civil defense official in Legazpi told the French news agency AFP that so far there had been no reports of looting.
Located more than 300 kilometers from Manila, Mayon is one of the Philippines' 22 active volcanoes. Records show Mayon has erupted at least 50 times, the worst in 1814, when the town of Cagsawa was buried in volcanic mud and over 1,000 people were killed.
The Philippines is situated on the "Ring of Fire," a line of seismic faults in the Pacific Ocean that is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity.