Taal status lowered to alert level 3, Agoncillo and Laurel still under lockdown

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 25) – State volcanologists lowered Taal Volcano’s alert status to Level 3 on Sunday, two weeks after the volcano's eruption on January 12 that led to a forced evacuation of thousands of families in the surrounding areas.

Volcanologists from Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) issued the lower alert status following a decline in volcanic earthquakes, slower ground deformation in Volcano Island and the volcano's caldera, and weak steam and gas emissions at its main crater.

Alert Level 3, a downgrade from the previous Level 4 that has been in place since January 12, indicates a "decreased tendency towards hazardous explosive eruption," Phivolcs said.

However, this "should not be interpreted that (the volcano's) unrest has ceased or that the threat of a hazardous eruption has disappeared."

"Should an uptrend or pronounced change in monitored parameters forewarn a potential hazardous explosive eruption, the alert level may be raised back to Alert Level 4," Phivolcs cautioned in its 8 a.m. bulletin on Sunday.

Even at Alert Level 3, there could be "sudden steam-driven and even weak phreatomagmatic explosions, volcanic eartquakes, ashfall and lethal volcanic gas expulsions," it added.

Following this announcement, Batangas Governor Hermilando Mandanas said residents of all towns, except Agoncillo and Laurel, may already return to their respective residences or place of work.

Checkpoints supervised by military and police personnel are set up to keep order and maintain security for the expected large numbers of residents going back to their residence.

More than 300,000 residents from nearby areas were evacuated. Military and police officials also began a total lockdown of all 199 barangays and 15 municipalities and cities in Batangas and Cavite which were marked as vulnerable to base surges and volcanic tsunami.

While Taal Volcano Island remains on permanent lockdown, the following areas are already open at the option of residents:

- Alitatag

- Balete

- Cuenca

- Lemery

- Lipa City

- Malvar

- Mataas na Kahoy

- San Nicolas

- Sta. Teresita

- Taal

- Talisay

- Tanauan City

"There is the likelihood occurrence of lahar, a destructive mudflow of stored volcanic ash from high areas, during rainfall and in case of eruption, especially in the areas contiguous to Cavite and elevated areas in Agoncillo and Laurel," the Phivolcs bulletin read.

It added that there are still health hazards due to ashfall, as well as possibly physical injuries and damage to properties due to unstable structures, slippery roads, fissures, unavailability of water and electricity, and other related risks.

Mandanas said another bulletin will be issued at 2pm and 6pm Sunday for further updates.

If the volcano's activity follows a trend of "decreasing unrest" the alert level may go down further to Level 2, Phivolcs chief Renato Solidum said in a separate briefing.

Still declared off-limits to people are Taal's permanent danger zone, as well as communities within the seven-kilometer radius from the main crater. Phivolcs advised local government units to assess areas outside the seven-kilometer radius for damage and road accessibilities.

Contingency and communication measures must also be strengthened in case of renewed unrest.

Alert Level 3 also means there is "relatively high unrest" through "seismic swarms" such as low frequency earthquakes.

Phivolcs recorded 420 volcanic earthquakes on Friday ranging from magnitudes 1 to 4, including 11 low-frequency tremors, citing Taal Volcano Network.

Phivolcs added that "the number and energy of low frequency events associated with activity in the shallow magma region" has already diminished.

On Saturday, Mandanas called for a meeting with officials from the Interior Department and the Philippine National Police to discuss the contingency plan for Alert Level 3.

Solidum earlier said they are not expecting "any activity for now" as long as magma deep beneath the volcano does not move.

"If that magma reaches the surface then eruptions can restart or it can happen again but if... it will just stay in that level then (if) we don't see yet a resurgence," he told CNN Philippines on Saturday.

"However, at the upper part of the volcano, the pit of the magma, will generate steam from boiling of the groundwater and that steam might either be emitted slowly or explosively so that can be a steam-generated explosion," Solidum added.

READ: Tireless Taal still spews smoke, over 400 quakes recorded

CNN Philippines' Janine Peralta and Glee Jalea contributed to this report.