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Thousands Flee Volcanic Eruption In Philippines


It is not a big volcano, but it is big enough to shut down Manila's international airport this morning. The Taal Volcano, about 45 miles south of the Philippine capital, erupted over the weekend, sending ash and steam nine miles into the sky and lava into Taal Lake. NPR's Julie McCarthy was in the evacuation zone earlier today, and she's back in our bureau in Manila now. Hi, Julie.


GREENE: So what'd you see on this trip?

MCCARTHY: Well, let me just paint a little scene. There's Taal Lake, which is this 90-minute drive from Manila. It's this picture-perfect tourist draw, and they come by the hundreds of thousands there. And inside that lake sits Taal Volcano. The lake shore is dotted with villages that overlook the volcano, and the government ordered some 25,000 people who live on the shore or near it to evacuate, and 15,000 actually went to shelters.

And we were in this cavernous evacuation center in the city of Tanauan, and some 700 people filled this gymnasium. And there were continual lines of food being served. There were so many donations that the head of the shelter told us people were eating eight times a day. But there were holdouts who wouldn't come. They wouldn't leave their property. They were afraid of looting.

Forty-four-year-old Maria Georgina Camatto (ph) fled her home with her two children and three other families, and she said to us she's terrified, but not about her property. Here she is speaking through an interpreter.

MARIA GEORGINA CAMATTO: (Through interpreter) I'm very scared. We didn't mind anymore the properties that we left behind. We just - we were just concerned of our lives.

MCCARTHY: And there are so many like her, settling into temporary shelters this evening, worried about what's next, you know, what lies ahead. Their lives have been upended, and this is far from over.

GREENE: Well, I mean, if it's far from over, what are we talking about here? I mean, what is the danger right now from the volcano, still?

MCCARTHY: Well, the - you know, there's great uncertainty here because the speed with which it accelerated took the scientists by surprise. It was in this low-level - what they call - unrest since last year, but it suddenly rumbled to life Sunday, blasting steam and ash and pebbles. And it repeated that again today in plumes that the government said were a quarter - mile-and-a-quarter high. And winds are carrying those - carrying that ash north to Manila. The roads are carpeted with ash.

The air quality is disintegrating. It disintegrates very fast as you travel toward the volcano and so does the visibility. Everybody's wearing masks. Even 40 miles away from it, they're wearing masks. The volcano, David, went from Level 1 alert to Level 4 in just a matter of hours Sunday, and today, it continues to creep up. And the government scientists say that means that a major explosion could happen within hours or days.


MCCARTHY: The schools are closed. Five hundred flights are suspended. And people are being told to stay indoors.

GREENE: Just remind me - there's a history of volcanoes in the Philippines, right?

MCCARTHY: Yeah. It's a highly active region for earthquakes and volcanoes. The Philippines sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the seismically active arc that extends from Japan to Indonesia. And you might remember Mount Pinatubo, also on the island of Luzon. It erupted in 1991 and killed more than 800 people. They hope that the evacuations and all the precautions they're taking are going to avert any kind of level of - any sort of disaster of that level. But the country is on pins and needles.

GREENE: It sounds like it. NPR's Julie McCarthy speaking to us from Manila. Julie, thanks.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORANTE AGUILAR'S "KULILAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.