A volcano that has thrown a blanket of ash over much of the Philippines' main island in recent days is somewhat quieter, but tremors continued and authorities warned people that a deadly new eruption was still possible.
Evacuations from a nine-mile danger zone around Taal volcano, about 40 miles south of the capital, Manila, continued on Thursday, with some 43,000 people living in the hardest-hit Batangas province having left their homes since the initial eruption on Sunday. But that is far from the half-million who have been asked to leave the area.
Displaced villagers were crammed into some 373 evacuation sites and officials were struggling to supply their basic needs, including ash masks, portable toilets, bottled water and sleeping mats, a provincial disaster-response office told The Associated Press.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said that there had been nearly 600 volcanic earthquakes caused by the subterranean movement of magma – some as strong as magnitude 4.
The institute's Maria Antonia Bornas, the chief of monitoring and eruption prediction, said that the volcano's plume had become a "weak emission" of ash, but she cautioned that "intense seismic activity" persisted, making the situation "a bit tricky right now." The institute maintained its Level 4 warning, with Level 5 reserved for an ongoing eruption.
"We are analyzing what this seeming calm of the volcano means," Bornas told reporters.
"At this stage, we're not ruling out the possibility of a hazardous eruption yet, but we're also now looking at the possibility that there may be a lull for a considerable period of time," she said, according to Rappler.
This could present a difficult dilemma for the people living near the volcano – many of whom have already been evacuated – as well as for the authorities who ordered them to leave.
Police and security forces have already had to block roads to prevent villagers from slipping past to check on their belongings, livestock and pets.
If the volcano — which is located on an island in the middle of a caldera — goes through a prolonged calming, it could make enforcing the evacuations more problematic.
On Thursday, despite days of warnings that the volcano could blow, police argued with people from four villages on the edge of the volcanic lake as they tried to cordon off the area.
"We've lost everything, our house got damaged, but I need to retrieve my pots and cooking wares and other things. They should not be very, very strict," 59-year-old Erlinda Landicho told the AP.
Many living on the slopes of the 1,020-foot Taal rely on their animals for survival and leaving them behind has fostered a sense of helplessness.
"We won't have food on our tables if not for them," Jun Despededa, 21, who was using water from the lake to scrub volcanic ash from his horse, told Reuters.
The news agency says that about 1,000 horses were among the livestock left behind on the island as people fled, along with cows, goats and pigs.
One horse owner wanted to take advantage of the volcano's lull to rescue as many animals as possible, but the coast guard, patrolling Taal Lake, rebuffed the villager's pleas, Reuters says.
Nearby Tagaytay city, situated northeast of the volcano within the nine-mile exclusion zone, is considered safe because its elevation is thought to protect it from lethal volcanic flows. Electricity was restored in some areas and business owners were cleaning away the ash and preparing to start trading again, the news agency said.
The city has also become a magnet for evacuees.
Farmer Rufo Gamaro brought 69 people with him to Tagaytay on Wednesday morning. He told NPR that the ash in his barrio, or barangay, is knee-deep.
"Our barangay was buried in so much ashfall ... [and it] was so dark that nobody could see where to go or where the roads are," he said.
Gamaro, an elected councilor in the town of Laurel, said he risked going home only to find all the crops and most of the animals gone. He told NPR that he fed a few of the surviving animals, but that his fish farm was destroyed and all the fish dead.
Jose Clyde Yayong, the local disaster management chief in the Tagaytay area, managed to sound optimistic about the unfolding crisis.
"We are just lucky that we experienced this," he told NPR. "It will help us realize that preparing for any event ... is very important."
Taal is one of the smallest, but most active volcanos in the world. It has erupted more than 30 times in the past five hundred years, most recently in 1977. One eruption in 1911 killed 1,335 people and another in 1965 killed an estimated 200.