Taal meets the Filipino nobility

by Jose Ma. Montelibano
I had started on an article a few days ago but now accommodating a deep need to write on the Taal volcano situation. Crisis deserves focused attention and I know many more will be the writing about the same subject. Still, what I am experiencing so far, as an observer and a volunteer, is simply too awesome to be kept to myself.
The sudden worsening of the Taal volcano that almost led to its full eruption last Sunday night caught most people by surprise.
Of course, Taal is one volcano among several that are always being monitored by the mandated government agency, Philvocs. Sunday morning had Philvocs alert level at just 1, meaning there is activity but is not expected to worsen many times over without any warning. That is not how Taal volcano behaved, however, and alert level 1 became 2, 3 & 4 just like that in a matter of hours. Ashes shot up to 14 kilometers high and ultimately covered a substantial portion of Luzon, including Metro Manila.
Between Taal volcano and Metro Manila are municipalities and cities from the provinces of Cavite and Laguna that virtually operate as an expansion of the densely populated metropolis. In terms of people, more than 30% of the whole Philippine population became affected, if not by tremors, then by ash falls. With no warning outside of the hours from past noon of Sunday to the early evening when level 1 went up to level 4, everybody’s pants were down, so to speak. I believe that both the government and the people were unprepared because the Taal volcano simply chose to act up suddenly with great force.
I am aware from news reports that up to half a million people have been asked to evacuate. The visible activity of the Taal volcano has substantially eased up. Smoke is down to 1 – 2 kilometers in the air instead of 13 – 14. The ashfall was the most unusual factor that spread fear and panic because previous Taal volcano eruptions in the 60s and 70s never managed to reach Metro Manila.  If at all a little did, it never mattered, it never created a stir among the urban dwellers of the metropolis. Last Sunday and early Monday, it did.
So many friends gave firsthand reports about the volcanic activity last Sunday afternoon accompanied by lots of photos. There was no Internet then, no social media. We depended solely on radio and television news. Reading trivia about the Taal eruptions 40 to 50 years ago, I chanced upon the information that there were 200 casualties in a 1965 eruption. As of today, despite the suddenness of everything and the number of people affected, no casualty has been reported. I must say that the local government units did their jobs in an exemplary manner.
There are, of course, more facilities are now being used as evacuation centers, even if some were not meant to be. The fact remains that half a million near enough Taal volcano had to be evacuated and, somehow, it was done. That is a logistical nightmare and it does not matter whether it happened here in the Philippines or in the United States. Without adequate warning, and with such force and impact, to have zero casualties is a sign of effectiveness and good fortune. But the continuing crisis demands even more of us, both public and private. Every day in crisis intensifies the needs of both victims and helpers. Having been personally involved in several calamity relief works, I am amazed at how much has been accomplished. All the more, I am totally surprised that there is a zero death count.
From Sunday afternoon when friends were connecting with their own families and social circles, I have felt raw fear among those who went to social media and who caught by traditional media on video. Those running away from areas around Taal volcano, and these comprised so many Batangas and Cavite towns and cities, were afraid of getting caught in a wild eruption. On the other hand, those who wanted to go to their homes even if these were threatened by the volcanic tremors and heavy ashfall, basically because they had family trapped in those areas without the capacity to escape, had even greater fear. I could imagine what they were going through and I felt for them.
As this mad scramble for safety or to rescue others from grave danger was going on last Sunday afternoon and night, I anticipated the awesome need for relief efforts. The lack of preparation, however, would have crippled many an effort even if there were resources. Yet, in the chaos was a deeper order, a deeper strength, from a people’s resiliency. I must give it to Batangueños and Caviteños, that their historical relationship with a great and deadly volcano, no matter how far ago it has been, developed in their psyche an intuitive acceptance and understanding. Even though they may have reacted by sheer instinct, it was an intelligent one.
I am in the center of a networking activity that reports or several field initiatives to help or host evacuees. This is because my life in the last 40 years has revolved around not only Metro Manila as my base but Southern Tagalog as well. There are so many friends and communities that have adopted me, and me them, from Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, and Quezon. Everybody is not on evacuation mode or hosting and assisting evacuees. The stories of victims are pitiful. But the heart of the helping Filipino is far more inspiring, far beyond the threat, far beyond the challenge. I only wish I had the skill to record each story of generosity and courage. It is this that we Filipinos should be telling and documenting. There is no anger, no hate, only the bayanihan of the Filipino soul.
In times like this, the potential for greatness is allowed to surface, albeit temporarily. Still, simple but consistent glimpses of our nobility affirm my conviction that Filipinos will be a great people.

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