Mount Pinatubo: The Aftermath

The Seattle Times
February 18, 1996
By Alex Tizon

SAN MARCELINO, Philippines – Her name was Rowena Domingo, 27 years old, thin and cocoa brown with eyes that belonged on a kid’s face. I met her in the western foothills of the island of Luzon, 60 miles northwest of Manila, on a mud trail outside what used to be the town of San Marcelino leading to what was once the Santo Tomas River. The town and river no longer were recognizable. They, along with Rowena’s husband and an immense portion of the central plains of Luzon, were buried under mudflows of Mount Pinatubo.

Rowena referred to the volcano simply as “The Mountain.” No other earthly fixture mattered. The Mountain was central to her story, to her past and future. She felt nothing as simple as hatred toward it. Terror, yes. Rage, yes. Reverence, sympathy, inexplicable fondness, yes.

I was there to see The Mountain, to get as close as possible to the hole in the earth left from the second-largest eruption of this century. I started the journey fascinated by Pinatubo; I came away moved by the story of a slight cocoa-brown woman who once lived under its shadow.

*

I was playing frisbee on a street in Eugene, Ore., that day in May 1980 when Mount St. Helens blew. The eruption killed 57 people, razed 250 square miles, and blanketed areas as far as Montana with a fine gray ash. The blast was equivalent to a 24-megaton nuclear bomb, which is a thousand times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The eruption of Mount Pinatubo a decade later, on June 15, 1991, was ten times as powerful as St. Helens. It created an atmospheric veil of dust that covered the entire planet, altered weather patterns for a year and helped cause massive flooding in the American Midwest, and played a role, among other things, in the extinction of a rare kind of coral found only in the Red Sea.

The amount of magma that settled on Pinatubo’s slopes could fill 500 million dump trucks – enough to cover an area the size of Thurston County with a layer 10 feet thick.

Unlike Mount St. Helens, which, it could be said, had room to throw a fit, Pinatubo sat on a narrow, densely populated island. The initial eruption instantly wiped out centuries-old villages, killing at least 700 people and chasing away 500,000 more. It buried Clark Air Force Base, sent 20,000 American troops packing and left 40,000 Clark-employed Filipinos without livelihood.

Tens of thousands of displaced Filipinos are still wandering, looking for a new life. Some have taken to begging on the streets of Manila; others languish in government relocation camps. Many returned to their villages only to be buried alive in huge mountain mudflows called “lahars.”

The Pinatubo lahars are expected to continue into the next millennium. Kelvin Rodolfo, a geologist from the University of Illinois, and an authority on Pinatubo, called the mudflows the most under-reported ongoing disaster in the world. The lahars, fueled by torrential rains during the monsoon season, resemble moving dams of steaming rock. They can bury a village in minutes. Every year, more places are wiped off the map. In the past year, it was Guagua, Santa Rita and a dozen others.

Bacolor, which I’d passed through numerous times in previous trips, was now a town of protrusions: rooftops, tips of power poles and television antennas. Palm fronds lay flat against an ashy white surface like a new kind of bush.

*

My journey to Rowena Domingo’s mountain trail had began several days earlier near Olongapo City at the By The Sea Resorts, a travel agency co-owned by an American expatriate. A poster in the window read: “Mount Pinatubo Adventure Tour. See native tribal community.

Breathtaking view of the lahar river of death. Panoramic view of Mount Pinatubo. Underwater town of Pili (600 houses slowly being buried in water). Hidden Temple shrine. 450 pisos ($18) per person. Tour includes guide, lunch, soda or mineral water. Lasts approximately five hours. Bring your camera.”

Only four people signed up that Monday: a retired physician from Oregon and her aunt, a curious local resident who fell asleep halfway through the tour, and me. We climbed into the back of a jeepney, the all-purpose mode of transport in the Philippines, which, to a Westerner, could be described as a long psychedelic pickup truck, half-tool, half-ornament. We would start out about 20 miles from Pinatubo’s base and would get within five miles of the mountain.

Our guide’s name was Bobby Delpozo, 41 years old, handsome and gray-speckled, a former Clark Air Force Base employee whose English was pretty good and whose point of reference for most things seemed to be Hollywood.

“The day of the eruption, everything became dark,” he told us. “Sitting this close, you couldn’t see me, like in The Ten Commandments, when the fog turns the day into night.

“The sound was like – did you see Cannonball Run with Burt Reynolds and . . . what was the girl’s name, The Flying Nun . . . ? — Anyway, that scene with all the trucks rumbling. It was like that.”

Most of the tour consisted of driving up and down winding dust-covered roads. It didn’t take long for the jeepney and everyone inside to be covered with a film of white powder — ash from the eruption.

“We look like the natives from King Kong,” Bobby laughed, and sold us each a damp face towel for 25 pisos ($1).

The closer we got to the volcano, the grayer and flatter the terrain became. Soon the entire landscape was gray, except for the tops of coconut trees. “Moonscape” was the word Bobby used. Still, there were the protrusions: signs of a former world, the tops of towns, like markers of lost civilizations. The protrusions were separated by long expanses of nothing but ash, expanses that were once lush green valleys bustling with human affairs.

This, all my senses were telling me, was tragedy on a scale I hadn’t been exposed to in my short suburban life. I went into sensory overload. The gray became monotonous. I wanted to take a nap. We stopped several times. I talked to people whenever I could. I felt sleepier after each stop.

*

I met a 13-year-old girl named Joanne Labringa who was exploring the remains of her former school in the town of Pili, about five miles from the volcano. Half the town was under water, as was half her family — the result of a dam that burst shortly after the eruption.

I met an older woman sitting in a boat, Luc Biag, who pointed out that the long pole in the distance, sticking out from a huge body of water, was the steeple of her church, Saint Barbara’s, which was a hundred feet tall. She said one of her brothers and an uncle died while diving to retrieve objects from the sanctuary.

I met an Aeta tribesman with his wife and two children. The Aetas were aboriginal people who lived on the slopes of Mount Pinatubo and worshipped it as their god. They believe The Mountain blew because it was angry: geologists had been drilling near its base; loggers had been clear-cutting its forests; towns had been encroaching on its slopes. The Aetas died by the hundreds in relocation camps.

Many, like the family I met, returned to the mountain, preferring to risk sudden death by lahar over slow death by disease or starvation. When I tried to take a picture of the Aeta man, he shook his fist and shouted, then dismissed me with an indignant wave. Of course, he had a right to be angry. His life had been blasted away by a volcano. He probably owned nothing but what he was carrying, and probably had nowhere to go but the end of the road. And there I was, rich tourist with a fancy camera, who literally flew down from the heavens, wanting to take a picture of him, Soot-covered Tribal Man, Exhibit A, Volcano Victim, Refugee, to show my American friends back home.

Rowena Domingo, on the other hand, offered me a papaya. I met her outside the remains of the town of San Marcelino during one of the last parts of the tour — a mile-and-a-half hike down to the Mount Pinatubo Hidden Temple Shrine. The shrine’s main feature was a three-ton Blessed Mary statue overlooking the Santo Tomas River.

The hike was all downhill. My knees hurt. I sat on a rock. Rowena Domingo appeared. We talked in Tagalog, the main language of that region. She asked me what I was doing there.

She found it curious that a Filipino was taking this silly tour. Of the 5,000 or so people who’ve gone on it in the past several years, nearly all were European and American tourists. What would a Filipino find interesting here?

I went into my “origins spiel,” one I had to repeat countless times during my trip: My parents are Filipino, I grew up in America; I am a Filipino in taste and appearance, an American by citizenship and habit. I’d like someday for my two halves to live together peaceably.

She, too, had a spiel. She and her family used to live in the municipality of San Rafael, about 15 kilometers from The Mountain’s base. San Rafael was now a moonscape. Her husband, Jerry, was buried by a lahar while doing surveying work. She had two kids. She and ten other families built bamboo homes on this hillside waiting for the day when Pinatubo went to sleep again, and they could return to San Rafael, excavate their homes and resume their lives.

She did not blame The Mountain. The Mountain had been good to her family, allowing them to build and farm on its slopes for many years. Her children learned to play on slanted ground. She missed her husband. He was under 30 feet of sand, probably still holding one of his measuring instruments. She was sure he did not blame The Mountain, either.

There’s a reason for everything. “Bahala na,” Filipinos like to say. What will be, will be.

Perhaps the Aetas were right. Maybe people should leave The Mountain alone for a while. It had been here much longer than any of us, and will be here still when all of us are gone. We can’t pretend to own it, she said, or it might get angry again.

Rowena showed me her bamboo house. She offered me papaya, which she sliced and seeded for me. We ate in silence. She gave me two papayas to go, in case I got hungry down the trail. At the end of the trail was the shrine and the three-ton Mary. Just beyond it, a few dozen feet down, was the shore of the Santo Tomas River. The river was a solid gray plain. In the distance, it ribboned in between some grayish hills. The hills opened up and outward, like the shell of a clam, and there in the middle was Mount Pinatubo. It wasn’t shaped like a classic volcano: it was more a crag than a cone, less than magnificent, but still awesome.

That crag did this. With my eyes fixed in the distance, I traced the shape of the river from the mountain’s apron, down through the gray hills all the way to the vast slate plain that stretched out in front of me, featureless and seemingly without end. Oh, Rowena, I thought to myself.  You will be waiting a long, long time.