Volcanologist devotes career, life monitoring PHL’s 3 most active volcanoes

By Rhaydz B. Barcia

LEGAZPI CITY, Oct. 28 (PNA) — At 59, Ed Laguerta, one of the country’s veteran Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) scientists, has devoted most of his time and career monitoring the country’s most active volcanoes — Mounts Bulusan in Sorsogon, Pinatubo in Pampanga and Mayon in Albay — just to keep people away from harm.

Despite several attractive offers for lucrative jobs abroad, he opted to stay in the country to serve his fellowmen, and in this pursuit, has saved countless of lives of his countrymen, especially his fellow Bicolanos.

The reserved, low-profile and skinny senior resident volcanologist of Phivlocs in the Bicol Region has served his countrymen for 36 years now.

Laguerta, a native of Irosin town in Sorsogon province, pursued his education by being a working student and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from Far Eastern University through the help of the late Phivolcs director Raymundo S. Punongbayan, fondly called RSP.

He is an American-trained volcanologist and underwent schooling at the University of Hawaii through the funding support of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), formerly known as Geological Survey.

The USGS is a scientific agency of the United States government with four major scientific fields of discipline — geography, geology, hydrology and biology.

Its current motto is “Science for a changing world” from the previous motto “Earth Science in the Public Service.”

Before his nine-year stay in Phivolcs-Manila, he manned the Phivolcs Bulusan volcano station for six years then was assigned in Mt. Pinatubo station along with his former boss Phivolcs director, the late RSP.

They experienced the wrath of Mt. Pinatubo’s plinian eruption — the 20th century’s second biggest volcanic eruption —a very explosive terrestrial eruption in the history.

Pinatubo, Laguerta said, had been dormant for 600 years.

It is a peak on the Zambales Mountain Range, rising about 1,785 meters (5,725 feet) he said.

Two years after his assignment in Pinatubo from 1991 to 1992, Laguerta was assigned by Punongbayan in Bicol after the occurrence of the February 2, 1993 Mayon volcano’s deadly eruption wherein 77 farmers were roasted alive by cascading pyroclastic flows.

So after Pinatubo’s deadliest eruption, his career life has been dedicated to watching Mounts Bulusan and Mayon for 21 years until today.

The veteran volcanologist even abandoned a study grant in the United States, although he had just started attending classes, by opting to return immediately to the Philippines after Mayon suddenly erupted last year.

From the US trip, he went direct to the joint emergency of the Regional Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and the Provincial DRRMC held at the Office of Civil Defense regional office even though he still had a jet lag then.

For 36 years in the Phivolcs as senior geologist-scientist in Bicol, Laguerta has been keeping track and studying the daily activities of the Mayon Volcano.

But the daily bulletin being issued by the Phivolcs on the condition of the Mayon Volcano or any volcano in the country, according to him, is the result of a thorough study and findings of all the divisions and departments under the agency which are manned by experts in their own respective fields of discipline.

Laguerta said all Phivolcs scientists have undergone schooling in the United States, Japan, New Zealand and France.

He explained that the results announced in the bulletin are a product of a long process and careful deliberations of the expert representatives from all concerned departments of the Phivolcs like those of Volcanology, Seismology, Geology, Volcano Monitoring and the Office of the Director.

The process being done by these experts, he said, involves long and thorough discussions and each department representative is asked to defend his unit’s findings and studies.

He said that during the discussions, there are debates among the experts before the body can make a comprehensive result or decision for the sake of the public.

“Our decision is based on scientific findings without any political preference as our core objective is the safety of the people. As government workers, we’re just reporting to the local and disaster authorities the current situation of the restive volcano as the safety of the people rest not only on our hands but also on local government and disaster officials,” Laguerta said.

He said that each decision and move of the Phivolcs that is reflected at the bulletin is very vital as it has significant implication on the local government unit concerned, like the province of Albay — including its towns and cities around Mayon.

He added that calling for a council meeting on the raising of the alarm status on a volcano is a difficult move on their part.

Laguerta cited as an example the present condition of the Mayon Volcano that before they raised the alert level to 2 and 3, the whole Phivolcs council members are being called, wherein the entire body deliberates before raising the alarm on the volcano.

“For the information of the public, all pronouncements we made regarding the restive condition of Mayon volcano revolves around science. We’re deliberating and considering all aspects regarding the abnormal activities of the volcano as we cannot sacrifice any single precious life to the volcano hazard,” he said.

“To those questioning our daily volcano bulletins reported to the public through the media are based on scientific findings after concerted finding by my fellow scientists. Spare us from politics,” the veteran Phivolcs scientist explained after critics here started questioning his credibility after Mayon started showing an erratic behavior.

He said those questioning their study and volcano daily bulletin can seek second opinion from their professors, “but they are all based abroad (US, Japan, New Zealand and France) to verify our scientific findings.”

When asked to comment on the legislative inquiry invitation made by the House Committee on Bicol Recovery on Oct. 30 to be done at La Piazza Convention Center, Laguerta said he is not afraid to face the inquiry.

He and Phivolcs director Renato Solidum are requested by Ako Bicol partylist Rep. Rodel Batocabe to attend the committee for legislative inquiry here.

“I am not afraid to face them because all pronouncements we made are based on Phivolcs’ scientific study,” the composed Phivolcs scientist said.

He said that if the politicians want to know how Phivolcs scientists do their job, they, through their staff, can observe and join them in the mountains to study the volcano for few months so they could be educated on how science is being employed in their work.

When asked to comment on the reported resignation he made, Laguerta said he didn’t resign from office, and as to criticisms, he said, they are open to any public scrutiny being public servants.

“If we don’t want to be criticized, we will not go into public office. So, if we don’t want criticisms, aalis na kami. But we would like to emphasize that no scientist will compromise his or her scientific study to politicians,” he said.

Cedric Daep, chief of the Albay Public Safety Emergency Management Office, has called on critics to spare Phivolcs and his office from politics as their decisions are science-based and that they depend on the expertise of Phivolcs scientists.

“Life saving is our priority. For the information of those questioning Phivolcs, they (scientists) are the only experts that need to be depended on volcano hazard. Whatever decisions we make depend on Phivolcs scientists’ pronouncements. No other agency in the country can interpret a volcano’s restiveness except the Phivolcs,” Daep said.

“Ed Laguerta, whose wife was once confined at the Bicol Regional Training and Teaching Hospital, was not even recognized by the hospital staff due to his humility. He is a very credible scientist on whom we’re depending regarding the abnormal condition of Mayon volcano,” Daep added. (PNA)