There is no doubt that Taal caught many of us by surprise. The eruption of the volcano was so sudden that our volcanologists didn't have time to issue alerts.
For the better part of 2019, the alert was at Level 1. But in one afternoon on Sunday, January 12, Taal erupted, and the alerts quickly went up to Level 2 at 2:30 PM, Level 3 at 4:00 PM, and Level 4 at 7:30 PM, meaning an even larger explosive eruption wasn't only possible, but imminent.
About 160,000+ people were displaced from the vicinity of the volcano and were distributed at various evacuation centers in Batangas. And so a lot of people and organizations mobilized to find ways to help. One of them was AC Motors.
Earlier this week, we joined Ayala Corporation's automotive arm on a relief operation for the displaced refugees due to the recent eruption of Taal Volcano. The operation saw executives from AC Motors and their various brands such as Kia, Volkswagen, KTM and Maxus, as well as their Isuzu and Honda dealers, participate in an excursion to 6 evacuation centers, bringing goods that were really needed.
Thankfully food and drinks were already well supplied in most evacuation centers, so the primary items the operation brought were the things that people didn't have time to grab when they left. Things like sleeping mats (banigs), comforters, toiletries, and even underwear for men and women. We also had a few sacks of rice, among others. Those are bulky items, but we had a sizable fleet with us: 28 vehicles from the AC Motors inventory.
We had several units of the D-Max, various Volkswagen models including a few Crafter vans, a couple of Maxus vans, and more. But not all vehicles would be coming back, as 8 of the Kia K2500 Karga multi-purpose delivery vehicles would stay. These vehicles are being donated to the Batangas government by AC Motors to help with the recovery.
When we got to the capitol of Batangas, it was clear that they were already well organized to handle the relief operations. We had picked the perfect day (Monday) because 24 hours prior on Sunday, January 19, they were inundated by various groups bringing all kinds of relief goods to their province to help. That must have been an incredible sight to see.
After the customary photos and briefing at the capitol, led by officials from the Office of the Governor and Ayala Corporation's arm that leads these kinds of operations, the Ayala Foundation, we were off. The convoy was split into 6 teams, one for each evacuation center, each carrying supplies for about 150 families. That means we had about enough for about 1,050 families. It's a pinprick in the grand scheme of things, but it's something.
Our team was sent off to the neighboring town of San Jose, just about a 15-20 minute drive from the capitol. Along the way we can see that the public schools are being used as shelters; the students must be rejoicing at the prospect of a “vacation”. Some barangays and their respective basketball courts were occupied too. Strangely enough, the churches of some denominations we encountered along the way weren't occupied; some had flatly refused to accept refugees. Go figure.
The evacuation center we went to was in itself a church; specifically, it was an LDS temple. The Mormons of that locale had opened their doors to refugees, and when we arrived, they were already good to go. It didn't take long to get organized into an assembly line; a style that isn't unfamiliar to us in our line of work.
We were actually surprised that there were not a lot of people there as we had been expecting. A check of the chalkboard revealed that there were a total of 168 refugees there; 4 were from the town of Cuenca, and 164 were from the town of Mataas Na Kahoy (roughly translated: Highwood, or Tall Tree). But what really surprised us is that a lot of the family members had actually resumed work already, wherever that may be.
The inside of the church -temple, sorry- was fully occupied. A majority of the evacuees, so we're told, were at the town hall. But since the major relief efforts have been concentrated towards those major government centers, we were sent here as not many relief goods make it to this church.
Talking with the people revealed many stories of the situation. The kids were either asleep or running around playing basketball or tag. The elderly folk didn't want to leave their homes, but they had no choice as the government had stepped in. Some were doing laundry, as evidenced by the makeshift clotheslines on the perimeter walls.
Everyone was more than happy to receive their blankets, comforters and even the packs of clean new underwear we had in our vehicles. One grandmother flashed her toothless smile when we -a few grown men- handed her a pack of not-so-granny panties.
One thing that did catch our eye was a solitary public utility jeepney over to one side, and the route said it plied Mataas Na Kahoy to Lipa. We spoke to the owner: Enrique Vergara, Jr., and he and his family had front row seats to the eruption of January 12. His home, after all, was right on the lake.
“Hindi na kami naghintay para sa opisyal na abiso,” said Enrique Vergara, the patriarch of his family. “Ito na ang hinintay natin. Umalis na kami agad nung pumutok ang Taal.”
(We didn't wait anymore for an official announcement. This is what we were waiting for. We left right away when Taal exploded.)
It seems the Vergara family was already prepared for a quick evacuation; much as an experienced fisherman would know almost exactly when it will rain, they knew this eruption wasn't a typical one. Within minutes of the initial eruption, they were in the town center of Mataas Na Kahoy from their lakeside home. Many of their neighbors didn't get out as quickly as they did; some had either hesitated or didn't have a mode of transportation handy.
Such is living near a volcano, said the brother of Enrique who, interestingly enough, had no legs. Many on social media were critical of those living so near the volcano, but if you're that close to it, you learn to adapt and how to be prepared. Some of his relatives were there when Taal had its last major eruptions from 1965 up to 1977; as kids, they weren't that scared, but their parents were. Now they're the parents.
They said they were lucky that Taal blew at lunchtime on a Sunday as Enrique was home and not plying his route on his jeepney. Vergara's wife says they were also lucky because they made it out quickly with their jeepney and without any injuries. They actually beat much of the ashfall when they fled their hometown, as evidenced by the fairly clean jeepney.
Others, they say, were not anywhere near as fortunate as they are, particularly their friends from towns such as Agoncillo, Laurel, and Talisay. The last one has a portion of its jurisdiction on Taal island itself, undoubtedly devastated and will be left abandoned.
On the drive back aboard the Maxus V80 at the conclusion of this relief drive by AC Motors, it was clear to us that the stories we were being told aren't so much of despair, but frustration. The consensus is somewhat odd: many just want Taal to erupt already. What's really bothering the evacuees is the uncertainty; many wish Taal to simply let loose and get it over with so they can either relocate somewhere else, or return to their homes once the ash, dust, and the volcano settle.
We're not quite sure if that's a good idea, but one thing we're sure of is that we'll be back, and maybe with more age-appropriate underwear for the elderly.