Ash still coming from Philippine volcano prompts mass evacuations

A Philippine volcano that erupted last weekend shuddered frequently with earthquakes Thursday, belching smaller plumes of ash, but prompting authorities to block access to nearby towns due to fears of a bigger eruption.

Authorities block access to 4 towns near the Taal volcano

Men carry their belongings as authorities told all residents living near the active Taal volcano in Agoncillo town, southern Philippines, to leave on Thursday Jan. 16. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

A Philippine volcano that erupted last weekend shuddered frequently with earthquakes Thursday, belching smaller plumes of ash, but prompting authorities to block access to nearby towns due to fears of a bigger eruption.

A crater lake and nearby river on the Taal volcano dried up in signs of its continued restiveness, and officials have warned people against speculating that the five-day eruption is waning.

"We have a seeming lull, but again, as we emphasized earlier, there is something different happening beneath the volcano," Ma. Antonio Bornas of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology told reporters, citing continued tremors, steaming and other signs of magma movement.

Renato Solidum, who heads the institute, said it may take up to two weeks for experts to assess whether the volcano's restiveness has eased. The Taal area has remained just a notch down from the highest level of a five-step alert system the institute uses to warn the public of a volcano's danger.

Soldiers and police blocked villagers from going back to the island volcano and nearby towns to retrieve belongings, poultry and cattle.

A man walks past damaged trees and deserted homes near Taal volcano as residents evacuated to safer grounds. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Many houses and farms have been damaged by volcanic ash since the eruption started Sunday, though no deaths or major injuries have been reported after tens of thousands of people evacuated.

A 65-year-old woman died of a heart attack while being moved out of Taal town in Batangas province, but officials said she had been ill and may have been stressed by the calamity. Batangas province lies more than 65 kilometres south of the capital, Manila.

Amid warnings of a possible imminent and more dangerous eruption, police cordoned off at least four towns near shores of a lake that surrounds the volcano. The move sparked arguments with villagers.

"We've lost everything. Our house got damaged. But I need to retrieve my pots and cooking ware and other things. They should not be very, very strict," 59-year-old Erlinda Landicho said.

Steam rises from the Taal volcano in a view from Tagaytay in Cavite province, southern Philippines, on Thursday Jan.16. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

Landicho, who fled with her son from Lemery municipality as the volcano erupted, was among a throng of villagers stopped by police from re-entering the ash-blanketed town. A firetruck blocked a key access road and police set up checkpoints. Beyond the barricade, Lemery looked like a ghost town partly shrouded in swirling ash.

More than 125,000 people fled their homes just in Batangas, which has declared a state of calamity to allow faster release of emergency funds. At least 373 evacuation sites were crammed with displaced villagers and needed more ash masks, portable toilets, bottled water and sleeping mats, according to a provincial disaster-response office.

The government's main disaster agency reported a little more than 68,000 people were displaced by the eruption in Batangas and Cavite provinces. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.

Cavite was also placed under a state of calamity after being swamped by thousands of displaced villagers from nearby Batangas.

Among those displaced were about 5,000 people who live on the island where the Taal volcano lies. The island is a popular tourist destination renowned for its stunning view of the volcano's crater lake and lush hills teeming with trees and birds. Some villagers have slipped past checkpoints to retrieve some of the hundreds of cows and horses they left behind, prompting the coast guard and police to intensify a security cordon.

A man walks with his belongings through clouds of ash as he leaves one of four towns evacuated near the Taal volcano. (Aaron Favila/The Associated Press)

About four villages exist on the island despite it being a permanent danger zone. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has recommended that villagers not be allowed back.

The 311-metre Taal is one of the world's smallest volcanoes but also the second-most restive of about two dozen active volcanoes across the Philippines. The Southeast Asian archipelago lies in the Pacific "Ring of Fire," the string of faults around the ocean basin where much of the world's earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.