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Volcanic Eruptions 101: Emergency Preparedness, What To Know, And What To Have On Hand

We answer all your FAQs about the Mt. Taal eruption, its potentially hazardous ashfall, and what to do now and when it's over. Preparedness is key!

It's a petite volcano, but size can be deceiving. Taal Volcano is terrifyingly deadly and is considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, having erupted dozens of times and claiming thousands upon thousands of lives in the last century. 




For those who never thought they would live to see the day that the otherwise calm and tranquil mount would awake from its restful sleep, the time has come. 


Taal is currently spewing steam, hazardous gases, and lava into the air and, affecting hundreds of neighborhoods and displacing thousands of Batangas city residents in just 48 hours. An estimate of at least 8,000 individuals have been evacuated and are have been brought to safer locations including schools and hospitals for temporary shelter.



Volcanologists were likewise shocked with the speed in which the eruption intensified after it began in the afternoon of January 12, Sunday.


At a round 1 p.m., the volcano was on Alert Level 1 (no imminent eruption foreseen with little to no seismic activity), but in less than four hours, it was raised to Alert Level 3, signifying increased magmatic activity, the beginning of cracking rocks, extreme and rapid changes in temperature, the occurrence of low-frequency quakes, and the stronger expulsion of steam.



By that evening, Batangas residents and authorities were in a state of panic; the volcano was at a Level 4 alert level, meaning it could become a full-fledged eruption at any time, bringing with it life-ending lava fountains and lava flows. (Taal is still on Alert Level 4 as of this writing. Learn the specifics of each Alert Level here). 


By this time, Metro Manila had also gotten its own taste of ashfall and residents were warned to stay indoors to protect themselves from the hazardous effects of inhaling particles emitted by the eruption. 


In other words, Taal caught everyone by surprise and Filipinos were in for mean Sunday evening.


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Though swift evacuations by the government and additional help offered by big-hearted civilians certainly curbed fatalities and injuries, the question must be asked: how prepared were we for the natural calamity, and what needs to be learned and taught in order to be better equipped for similar instances in the future? 


After all, the Philippines is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire and is one of the most disaster-prone countries on the entire planet. Filipinos, at any time in the year, may face earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, floods, landslides, and yes, volcanic eruptions. Ideally, that should also mean that they should be the most knowledgeable and capable in emergency preparedness—but are they? 


Now, we're not one to encourage panic and doomsday attitudes, but a fine line exists between paranoia and due diligence for these occurrences. Extreme natural calamities are becoming more and more commonplace in the country, and it certainly wouldn't hurt to know what you're up against and how to protect you and your family's safety come any emergency. 


In light of the circumstances surrounding Taal, we've put together a nifty volcanic eruption 101 guide for everyone seeking information on how to better prepare for it. Check out everything you need to know below:


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#1 The most important thing to have on hand is the proper face mask. 


The correct face mask being the N95 mask and that mask only. It's a must for those who are in direct contact with severe ash fall and in the vicinity of an eruption's danger zone (think rescuers and residents in communities that are in direct risk of an eruption). 


Why it's the only recommended mask is because it first and foremost fits snugly around the face. Having no space between your skin and the mask means it can better protect you from airborne particles (even those invisible to the naked eye). 




Other points to note about proper mask wearing:

  • - A regular face/medical mask won't cut it. That's because they fit loosely around the face and allow other particles to be inhaled. Those are only meant to protect you from large liquid droplets.


- It is not recommended for those with facial hair and children for the same reason of a less than perfect fitting. 


- In place of the N95 mask (if it's unavailable or does not properly fit), a damp towel or cloth is your best alternative.


- The N95 mask filter must be changed after eight hours of continuous use or if the user generally experiences labored breathing while wearing the mask. 


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#2 A survival pack is necessary.


No, it's certainly not an overreaction to have a go bag ready despite living far away from a volcanic site. Always remember that eruptions can cause earthquakes whose intensities and reach cannot be predicted, and wind can also spread hazardous ash to distant places, including your home. Because of these reasons, you may also be forced to evacuate and temporarily relocate for an unknown number of days.  


Your go bag must include the following necessities, as outlined by these infographics:  



Given that a single go bag may not be enough to have all those items, determine which family member is tasked to carry what. Inform every member of the household about these assignments, however, make sure that each person's go bag still contains necessities for themselves (i.e.: their own clothes, food rations, and smaller safety items like radios, whistles, flashlights, and a first-aid kit).   


It is crucial for everyone to be in sync in case of a real, high-pressure emergency.


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 #3 Know what you're up against.


Any volcanic eruption (and natural calamity, at that) is scary in itself, but it wouldn't hurt to know the specific threats that accompany it. A little knowledge could save you, or help you save others. Here's a crash course on the most crucial things to know about eruptions in the context of emergency preparedness: 




What's in volcanic ash?

Volcanic ash is definitely not your run of the mill dust. It contains "a mixture of rock, mineral, and glass particles expelled from a volcano" but are incredibly tiny (often less than two millimeters) and light. These jagged-edged, abrasive particles are light enough blown away by wind to far off places and more importantly, can easily be inhaled by both people and animals. The side effects of inhalation? Throat irritation, labored breathing, aggravated effects of existing respiratory illnesses, and in the worst cases, irreversible lung damage. (Learn more about the different sizes of volcanic ash particles and why it's important to protect yourself from them here). 


Does that mean an eruption is no longer imminent if no visible smoke is rising from a volcano?

No. The absence of smoke does not indicate that an area is free from threat. Do not make assumptions based on what you see; wait for official announcements from authorities about appropriate courses of actions and whether or not it is safe to return, if previously asked to evacuate. 


Are animals affected by the same things humans are?

Absolutely! Pets, livestock, and wild animals are exposed to the same threats their human counterparts are. Like us, they could suffer from respiratory illnesses if they inhale volcanic ash, and without much explanation, they're also just as vulnerable to earthquakes, lava flows, volcanic tsunamis, and landslides. Keep your animals inside the house, or in any enclosed and roofed area to protect them from the elements in the midst of an eruption. If you must leave them behind, give them a chance to save themselves and do not tether them to a tree, post, or fence. 


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Now that you know better, be safer!


And as a final note, consider being of help to those directly affected by the Taal eruption by learning more here. 


Photos via @abscbnnews and @ogiealcasid