Sightseers still welcome in Albay, but DOH warns of toxic volcano gases
“It is my first time to see this,” said French tourist Philip Balsselle in a television interview as he set up camp in Quituinan Hills in Camalig, Albay along with other foreign and local tourists eager to watch Mayon’s restive splendor.
According to the Department of Tourism – Bicol Region, there will be designated viewing sites per municipality around Albay, which has traditionally seen an influx of tourists whenever the volcano churns lava and toxic gas.
“We do not have any reason to close Bicol to tourists. There are destinations that are not affected by the Mayon Volcano. Tourism should continue to flourish in Albay,” said Herbie Aguas, regional director of DOT-Bicol.
“Foreign and domestic visitors are still welcome in Albay. They can watch the Mayon Volcano from an area that is safe and away from the 6-kilometer permanent danger zone (PDZ),” he added.
Legazpi tourism officer Pita Pacres said there are several safe areas that provide a perfect view of Mayon, one of the country’s most active volcanoes named after a mythical character, Daragang Magayon (Beautiful Maiden).
Pacres said the Legazpi Boulevard and Highlands Park in Estanza are among the areas that have an unobstructed view of the volcano, which according to the National Geographic had its first recorded eruption in 1616 and has erupted about 58 times since then, “ranging from sputters to calamities.”
Airport operations remained normal, according to Bicol International Airport manager Rolando Bocito. Flying any aircraft close to the volcano, however, is prohibited.
“We have increased our inspection of the runway to ensure there are no contaminants like ash fall that can affect the operation of an aircraft,” he said.
But for Health Secretary Dr. Teodoro Herbosa, the public must refrain from sightseeing near the restive volcano because its emissions contain sulfur and sulfur dioxide.
“These attach to hemoglobin and poison the blood. The dust in the ash can also stick in our lungs,” Herbosa said in a press briefing yesterday.
“Remember there is a concomitant health risk for being close to the eruption because of inhaling sulfur dioxide gas or the particulate matter,” he added, advising the spectators to wear an N95 mask.
Thousands of people living near Mayon have already taken shelter in evacuation centers as officials said the volcano is already erupting.
“This is a real eruption, but it’s not hazardous because it is at the summit near the mouth of the volcano,” said Teresito Bacolcol, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), speaking in a mix of English and Filipino.
More than 12,800 people inside the six-kilometer permanent danger zone have been moved to evacuation centers, the Office of Civil Defense said, most from farming villages at or near the foot of the volcano.
Phivolcs said rocks were falling from a disintegrating lava dome being pushed out of the crater by molten material below the earth.
The rocks were raining down on areas up to two kilometers away and sulfur dioxide emissions had tripled since Saturday, state volcanologists said.
A five-step alert system for the volcano was raised from 2 to 3 on Thursday, with authorities warning of possible respiratory illnesses from inhaling fumes.
Residents of Tumpa in Camalig were asked to stay at the Bongabong evacuation center where some evacuees have complained of poor conditions, saying it was too hot to stay inside the modular tents.
There was also a lack of water in the restrooms.
The OCD said it is working on delivering drinking water and helping with proper waste management in evacuation centers. It has also positioned food packs and non-food items for quick delivery to affected communities.
The provincial government of Albay said it will buy the produce of farmers inside the PDZ to ensure they will not return to the area.
These goods will then be used to feed the evacuees, said Albay Gov. Edcel “Grex” Lagman.
The Department of Health said it has earmarked P1.8 million for a contingency fund that would aid those affected by Mayon Volcano’s intensified unrest.
Herbosa said P303,000 in logistics was mobilized in local government units affected by Mayon Volcano’s recent activities.
“I am asking for more money because the regional director asked me for additional funds,” he said.
Herbosa said the DOH is monitoring the situation in evacuation centers, given that crowded places are prone to the spread of respiratory infections, including COVID-19.
All hospitals, including non-DOH hospitals, specifically in the Province of Albay are on Code Blue Alert or on a 24-hour duty due to possible Mayon Volcano eruption.
Herbosa said they deployed additional personnel from the DOH central office to help out the local staff.
He also directed the regional office in Bicol to prepare emergency logistics for affected areas or to treat patients.
“They were given more supplies such as face masks, potable water, medicine, and… hygiene kits in place across all municipalities,” Herbosa said.
“We have also coordinated with the Bicol Medical Center for a fast lane for volcano-related emergencies, especially for cases such as inhaled gasses or burns,” he added.
So far, no person has been confined because of volcano-related illnesses.
Earthquakes and volcanic activity are common in the Philippines due to its position on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” where tectonic plates collide.
Five years ago, Mayon displaced tens of thousands of people after spewing millions of tons of ash, rocks, and lava.
The country’s most powerful eruption in recent decades was Mount Pinatubo in 1991 that killed more than 800 people.
That disaster produced an ash cloud that traveled thousands of kilometers.
— Joyce Pangco Panares with Charles Dantes, Macon Ramos-Araneta, Rio Araja, AFP
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