Tens of thousands of people were being moved out of their homes in the central Philippines yesterday in the face of an imminent eruption of the rumbling Mayon volcano, officials said.
With 80 military trucks doing the heavy lifting, the government expected to move some 34,276 people to 31 state-run shelters during the day, Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz said in Manila.
Two more army platoons joined a military force helping in the evacuation and a team of government doctors is on standby to prevent disease outbreaks in the shelters, said Cruz, also chairman of the civil defense office.
"The evacuation is ongoing. It has been going smoothly," he said.
Volcanologists have said an explosive eruption by Mayon, one of the country's most active volcanoes, could threaten the lives of about 60,000 people. It began abnormal activity in February and started emitting small lava flows on July 15.
Mayon has had 47 eruptions in recorded history, the latest being a mild outpouring of lava in June 2001. It buried the town of Cagsawa in the 19th century, killing an estimated 1,000 people.
In Legaspi, city mayor Noel Rosal personally supervised the evacuation of 10,500 residents from four villages on Mayon's lower slopes.
"We are just waiting for them to gather some of their things before we take them to the major evacuation centers," he said, while admitting: "Some are reluctant to leave."
The mayor said the mild lava eruption last month "gave us ample lead time to prepare the evacuation centers" -- mostly schools and other government buildings beyond the volcano danger zone.
They were stocked with a week's worth of food as well as sleeping facilities, while tap water and electricity connections were provided, officials said.
If an explosive eruption does occur for a longer period, "we have enough funds to cover the food, water, medicine and other requirements of this evacuation and tending to the people in the evacuation centers for the next several weeks or months," Cruz told a press conference.
He said 80 tents are on standby to serve as temporary schoolhouses for displaced children.
Mayon's environs were rocked early yesterday by six successive volcanic blasts, followed by a fountain of lava from its crater.
"This signifies that Mayon is almost ready to burst," said Ernesto Corpus, head of the volcanology section of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.
By mid-morning the peak was covered in a dark cloud of volcanic material rising several kilometers above the crater. Television footage showed superheated lava tumbling down the slopes, setting vegetation on fire.
The government's seismology institute yesterday raised a five-step volcano alert over Mayon at the next-highest level of 4, meaning an eruption could occur "within days," Corpus said.
Material thrown from the crater of the 2,460m mountain could threaten anyone within an 8km radius, the institute said in an advisory.
It advised local officials in the central province of Albay to order the evacuation of 28 areas around the mountain, including parts of Legaspi city and the towns of Camalig, Daraga, Ligao, Malilipot, Santo Domingo and Tabaco.