Rains carry threat of destruction from volcanic mud near Philippines' Pinatubo

October 20, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

CASTILLEJOS, Philippines -- Armando Carmen used to love the sound of the driving monsoon rains, drenching his paddies and making his rice grow tall.

Now he dreads the rain, carrying the killer lahar from the slopes of Mount Pinatubo, burying entire villages.

"Lahar is already at that mountain, I was there yesterday and saw the floodwaters carrying the lahar," Mr. Carmen says. "If it will rain continuously for half the day, surely lahar will reach this place."

Lahar is the term scientists here use to describe volcanic debris mixed with water that has flowed down Pinatubo's slopes since the volcano erupted in June and the rains began two weeks later, entombing hundreds of villages and sweeping away villagers in its gushing torrent.

And now, in this village 15 miles from the volcano, it is threatening everything Mr. Carmen, 37, and his wife, Marina, 35, have worked for -- a comfortable little home made of concrete and corrugated metal, a small variety store and 50 sacks of rice, Mr. Carmen's entire March harvest.

Normally, Mr. Carmen would have sold the rice long ago and been weeding and fertilizing his next crop for harvest in November. But his fields are buried in a foot of volcanic ash. And the family's income from the little store is down to $4 a day, so he's kept the harvest for food.

The bags of rice are stacked up in the Carmens' living room. At the side of their house, a bamboo ladder leads to the roof.

After all these years, farming rice and watching four children grow into teen-agers, their security has come down to this -- a bamboo ladder leading to the roof, their final place of refuge should the lahar reach their village.

It has already been declared a "lahar level-three warning area."

Level one means get ready; level two means get set; level three means go -- get out.

The Carmens' home is 100 yards from the Pamatawan River, which stems from the Santo Tomas River three miles away -- the place where Mr. Carmen saw the lahar flowing.

Mr. Carmen is anxious -- what is the situation like there today?

"The steam we are seeing is steam from the hot lahar," he says, setting out on foot to find out. "And in back of that steam, Pinatubo."

Coming from the depths of the Earth's hot core, Pinatubo's wrath almost defies comprehension. It has spewed enough volcanic ash into the sky, scientists believe, to counteract the global-warming trend. And it has deposited enough debris on its slopes to bury a half-dozen nearby villages Pompeii-style in 30 feet of lahar.

Tom Pierson, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said recently that tens of millions of cubic meters of sediment ultimately would be washed down from the volcano, posing a threat "for at least the next decade."

And even with only 10 percent of the rock and coarse sand washed off the slopes so far, lahar has already changed the course of a dozen rivers on the main Philippine island of Luzon, destroyed tens of thousands of acres of fertile rice land and devastated the lives of at least 100,000 people in five neighboring provinces.

All told, 1 million people have been adversely affected since the volcano's eruption, with damage estimated in excess of $500 million and mounting daily.

"This is all we've got," Marina Carmen says of her family's home, the sacks of rice, the ladder leading to the roof. "We've worked for this all our lives, and if this is destroyed by lahar, we'll have nothing left."

The dreaded, driving rain begins just as her husband sets out across a desolate plain toward the Santo Tomas River.

A foot of volcanic sand has already devastated the paddies like a smothering blanket of gray snow that won't melt, though it is nothing more than a dusting, compared to what the lahar will bring.

A mile's walk from his home, Mr. Carmen meets up with Marcelo Dacumos heading in the same direction. A small, wiry man carrying a machete, Mr. Dacumos, 42, used to farm rice and tend a herd of 26 cattle for an absentee owner. Now, with nothing better to do, he's taken up lahar-watching, for his own good.

"If it keeps raining like this," he says, "we'll see lahar flowing in the river. The other night, we heard the lahar flowing, from our homes. It sounded like jet engines revving. At night, when it rains, no one sleeps."

Mr. Carmen and Mr. Dacumos are drenched to the bone by the time they make it to an aid station set up by the Philippine Episcopal Church in the village of San Rafael, a mile from the raging Santo Tomas.

There's a guitar hanging from a pole holding up the canvas roof, and hot instant coffee, and idle chatter about what's preying on everybody's mind.

George Umaming, 29, a church relief worker, was asleep the other night when the cries of villagers awakened him just before dawn.

"The lahar is already in the irrigation canal!" they shouted.

The canal was only 300 yards away; soon a delegation from the village set out the final mile to the Santo Tomas, from which the canal flows. They found total devastation.

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