The melancholic volcanic monster threatens the Philippines

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VOLCÁN TAAL, Philippines – Gray ash is knee deep. It covers the houses, the swollen corpses of cows and horses, their limbs protrude in unnatural angles in the shadow of a volcano in a bad mood that could explode again at any moment.

“My house is gone,” said Melvin Mendoza, 39, a boatman who returned Tuesday to Taal, the volcanic island in the middle of a freshwater lake just 40 miles south of Manila, which erupted on Sunday as An atomic cloud of atomic fungus. .

Toxic ashes and smoke, which stink of sulfur and other harmful gases, have transformed the green island, a popular tourist spot, into a vast gray carpet of lifeless gray. At least 30,000 people within nine miles of surrounding cities have fled, and the United Nations says that up to half a million residents are still at risk. For now, the island is no longer habitable, and volcanologists say a fresh and perhaps more powerful eruption is possible.

Despite government warnings, Mr. Mendoza along with some other residents of the volcano island ventured to return from emergency shelters on Tuesday to see first-hand what was left of their homes and perhaps save some belongings . A journalist and photographer from The New York Times accompanied them.

Among the first challenges they faced was the depth of two feet of ash as they left a motorized canoe. It was difficult to see precisely where the water ended and the earth began. Hundreds of tilapia covered with dead ashes floated in the gentle current, injecting the smell of rotten fish into the scented air of sulfur.

In some places, the rain had already hardened the ash, like crusty snow, which makes it relatively easy to walk on it. In other places, the ash was still soft and treacherous.

Mr. Mendoza held back his tears as he retrieved a wooden board of what had been his home.

“We had happy memories here,” he said. “The island maintained our livelihoods, but also withdrew everything. It all went away in the blink of an eye. “

Coconut trees are now blackened stumps. The menacing mountain threw columns of smoke and ashes with ultrafine particles that are dangerous to breathe.

Just a few steps from the corpse of a horse were the remains of the tourist office of Taal, a two-story cement building that was once the busiest on the island and that houses more than 2,000 volcano visitors a year . All other nearby buildings have collapsed.

The volcano has erupted about 35 times in the last hundreds of years, volcanologists said. The last eruption was in 1977.

There was little warning before Sunday’s eruption, which sent residents of the island to fight for safety, leaving everything behind, including farm animals.

Mr. Mendoza said he felt lucky. His wife, Jasmine, 34, and two young children, 14 and 10, escaped unharmed.

“While we are alive, there is hope,” he said.

Others who returned in small canoes on Tuesday found that part of their livestock had survived. A farmer miraculously carried a water buffalo aboard a canoe.

Another rummaged through a crack in the ash-covered earth and emerged with a plastic bag of stuffed toys. “These are owned by my nieces,” he said as he pointed to a mound. “Our house is below that.”

Amid reports that the government can permanently ban residents from returning to the island, the men risked being arrested by the Coast Guard, which has deployed officers in the cities surrounding the volcano to ensure a complete evacuation.

For Roger Holgado, a 56-year-old volcano island resident, not returning is not an option. Holgado said he was born on the island and had spent his entire life there. He witnessed the last eruption 42 years ago when he was just a teenager.

“I’ve seen the island be restless before, but it has always calmed down,” he said. “I’m sure he will do it again this time, because I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Holgado said the family had operated a small lottery business on the island, which he had provided for him, his wife and nine children.

Renato Solidum, the government’s leading volcanologist, said Tuesday that Taal has been emitting lava since its eruption, accompanied by significant earthquakes, all pointing to more problems.

“The condition of the Taal volcano is dangerous and an explosive eruption is possible in a matter of hours,” he said.

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