By Hanah Tabios, Aaron Recuenco, and Martin Sadongdong
As residents of disaster-hit Batangas province start to return to their homes, the Pansipit Bridge was a witness to the jubilant evacuees who created a parade of motorcycles on Sunday while entering the Taal-Lemery boundary.
In a video circulating in social media, smiles where painted on the evacuees’ faces while yelling “salamat po” at the police and military personnel stationed at the check point areas.
From jam-packed jeepneys, tricycles, and even motorcycles, the evacuees, looking like the Israelites escaping Egypt during Moses’ time, were waving their hands in jubilation and also to prove that they are all ready to move forward.
The scene of the exodus happened after the Philippine Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) lowered to Alert Level 3 the status of Taal Volcano. The residents affected by Taal Volcano’s eruption on January 12 have been staying in various evacuation centers in Batangas and Cavite provinces for 15 days with the authorities imposing a total lockdown in some towns.
Batangas Governor Hermilando Mandanas issued a bulletin giving the residents the option to return to their homes.
At least 12 areas were opened to the returning residents. These were Alitagtag, Balete, Cuenca, Lemery, Lipa City, Malvar, Mataas na Kahoy, San Nicolas, Sta. Teresita, Taal, Talisay and Tanauan City.
“Liliwanagin lang natin na sa Tagalog, binibigyan na natin ang lahat na kung gustong umuwi, binibigyan na natin sila na sila ang magpasya. Hindi natin sila inuutusan na umuwi, hindi natin sila pinipigilan,” Mandanas said in a press briefing.
The towns of Agoncillo and Laurel remain on lockdown as these areas lie within the 7-kilometer radius from the Taal’s main crater.
The volcano island or known to many as “pulo” is on permanent lockdown.
Agoncillo was among the heavily devastated communities by the ash fall where several animals and residential houses were buried in gray and hazardous ash.
Authorities said they will practice maximum tolerance since they are expecting a heavy influx of eager residents, hence, the appeal for cooperation to also ensure a smooth traffic flow.
The governor also said that power and water supplies might not be available at the moment due to a temporary shutdown. But he said they have already coordinated the matter to the water and electric companies handling the supply in Batangas.
Additional policemen and soldiers were deployed in the previously locked down areas.
Brig. Gen. Marceliano Teofilo, Joint Task Force Taal commander, said that they already drafted some measures to be strictly observed in anticipation of the influx of residents.
He said police and military checkpoints will still be in place to ensure a peaceful and orderly return of the evacuees.
About 90 percent of residents displaced by Taal’s eruption two weeks ago are expected to go back to their houses, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported on Sunday.
NDRRMC Executive Director Ricardo Jalad said those who could go back to their homes are people residing outside the seven-kilometer danger zone.
“Ang pwedeng bumalik is ‘yung outside of the seven-km danger zone except some barangays sa Laurel at Agoncillo na matindi ang sira, mga fissures, nasira ang bahay (Those who can go back are the residents outside the seven-km danger zone except some barangays in Laurel and Agoncillo towns where the damage is severe, there are fissures and houses were destroyed),” he said.
“Baka aabot sa mga 90 percent of the displaced ang makabalik (About 90 percent og the displaced residents may be able to go back),” he added.
As of 6 a.m. Sunday, the NDRRMC said 98,187 families or 376,327 individuals were affected by Taal’s steam-driven eruption on January 12.
Of those affected, 81,027 families or 303,934 individuals were displaced: 37,203 families or 135,365 individuals were temporarily staying in 497 evacuation centers while 43,824 families or 168,569 individuals were being served outside shelters.
Of these numbers, about 273,540 residents may be able to go back to their houses.
According to NDRRMC spokesperson Mark Timbal, Batangas Governor Hermilando Mandanas advised the returning residents to evacuate within one hour if Alert Level 4 is raised anew.
Those who may not be allowed to return to their homes are residents within the 7-km danger zone including occupants of Taal Island and near the lakeshore.
Brigadier General Marciliano Teofilo, commander of Joint Task Force Taal, said the displaced residents have started going back to their homes as of Sunday morning.
He said residents who opted to return to their homes were advised to be ready for sudden evacuation as the situation remains unpredictable.
Teofilo said they were instructed by Gov. Mandanas to refrain or at least limit the children, elderly, and sick residents from going back to their houses.
“Preferably sana ‘yung pagpunta nila doon ay para i-check ‘yung ari-arian nila at mga alaga (Preferably, their return is just so they can check their properties and pets or farm animals),” Teofilo explained.
Others opted to stay
Sixty-six-year old Gloria Marcellana does not know whether to immediately go back to their house in Taal town or remain in the evacuation center at the Provincial Sports Complex in Batangas City.
She said she missed her house which she and her husband invested in as a married couple more than 25 years ago.
The desire to go back was further triggered when a handful of her fellow evacuees started to pack up and eventually returned to their homes.
“I really want to go back but we decided to remain until we are assured that it is already safe,” Marcellana told the Manila Bulletin.
Marcellana’s decision was shared by almost all of the evacuees here amid confirmation of fissures and damaged houses of their neighbors as a result of the volcanic earthquakes that jolted their town in the past days.
Of the 356 families staying here at the Batangas Provincial Sports Complex only nine of them left as of 4 p.m. on Sunday.