Philippines' Taal volcano erupts, forces thousands to flee

The sudden eruption of a Philippine volcano over the weekend has forced tens of thousands from their homes and grounded 500 flights in the country's main airport.

Red-hot lava gushed out of Taal volcano Monday, which pumped out ash that blew 62 miles north to capital Manila, closing its airport. Experts have warned that the eruption could get worse, and officials were planning to evacuate hundreds of thousands.

There have been no reports of casualties or major damage so far after the eruption Sunday, but thousands of people had to be moved to safety from the danger zone in volcano's vicinity.

Officials at the Philippine government disaster management agency told NBC News on Monday that nearly 22,000 people have already been evacuated.

But some residents could not move out of ash-blanketed villages due to a lack of transport and poor visibility, while others are refusing to leave their homes and farms.

The mayor of Taal, a town of about 60,000 people nine miles southwest of the volcano, told NBC News on the phone Monday their streets are covered in ash.

Fulgencio Mercado, 62, said tens of thousands of residents have left by car, public transport or in vans and trucks arranged by the municipal government.

But he estimates that about 10 percent of the population are still in the town, mostly people who are reluctant to leave their belongings, animals and homes.

"They should all leave," he said. "It's a mandatory evacuation."

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Irene de Claro, a mother of four, worried about her father, who stayed in their village in Agoncillo town in Batangas while the rest of the family fled in panic.

“My father is missing. We don’t know too what happened to our house because the ash was up to our knees, it was very dark and the ground was constantly shaking when we left,” de Castro told The Associated Press in Batangas. “Most likely there’s nothing for us to return to. We’re back to zero.”

On Monday, flight operations partially resumed, but airport officials told NBC News they were closely monitoring volcanic activity and could suspend operations at any time.

Government work and classes in schools in a wide swath of towns and cities were also suspended, including in Manila.

Taal had been restive for months until it suddenly rumbled back to life over the weekend, blasting steam, ash and pebbles up to nine miles into the sky, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

The government volcano-monitoring agency raised the danger level around Taal three notches to level 4, indicating “an imminent hazardous eruption.”

It said Monday the volcano continued to erupt, producing “weak sporadic lava fountaining” and generating steam-laden plumes about 1.2 miles tall.

The office of President Rodrigo Duterte warned of the health risks of volcanic ashfall, which can cause irritation and breathing problems, particularly among the elderly and children. Residents in affected areas are being told to use face masks or wet cloth when going outside.

The president’s own plane had difficulty taking off after the eruption caused zero visibility in some areas in the south, Philippine News Agency reported Monday.

One of the world’s smallest volcanoes, Taal is among two dozen active volcanoes in the Philippines, which lies along the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a seismically active region that is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.