Saturday, April 30, 2005

Remembering the volcanologist, Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan

CITY OF SAN FERNANDO-Like Mt. Pinatubo, the volcano that he said brought out the best and the worst in him, Dr. Raymundo Punongbayan is at rest now.

Death came in a violent way, through a helicopter crash on Mt. Namal in Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija, on Thursday morning.

Punongbayan, the former chief of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, was scheduled to assess geological hazards in Barangay Paltic in Dingalan, Aurora when the accident occurred.

Punongbayan-Ray to his friends and enemies, RSP to his colleagues and students-was best remembered as the scientist who helped lead Central Luzon out of the disaster caused by Mt. Pinatubo's eruptions in June 1991.

During the 10th year of the disaster in 2001, the Aetas of Zambales and Religious of the Virgin Mary nuns credited Punongbayan for listening to people and trusting them.

Then the director of the poorly funded and understaffed Phivolcs, Punongbayan sent a team to Zambales to confirm reports
of steams and frequent earthquakes on the western flanks of Mt. Pinatubo two months before the eruptions.

In casual conversations several years after, Punongbayan said the major challenge that he faced was how to make people believe that a volcano was in its eruptive stage.

There was disbelief because nobody knew, not even the elders of the Aetas, that Pinatubo was a volcano. Nobody, too, has an experience with eruptions. To the tribe, it was a mountain where a powerful deity, Apo Namalyari, lived. Punongbayan advised evacuation in phases.

As the magma built up and rose to the crater, he relieved his tension by smoking, and smoking a lot.

In stages, the Phivolcs expanded the danger zone from 10 to 40 km. Outside that huge zone was a population of four million people in Pampanga on the east, Tarlac on the north and Zambales on the west. They had no idea they lived under the shadow of an angry volcano.

The large population at risk made the task even more daunting, he said.

As he dished out advisory after advisory, he said he left it to the National Disaster Coordinating Center to bring the information to the local governments and the communities.

What irked him then, he said, was the slow relay of information to the villages.

Patience was not his best trait and he thought it was wise that the work was left to Jean Tayag, his information and education chief at Phivolcs.

Punongbayan knew the power of media in information sharing. The problem was, some reporters did not understand the language of volcanology, much less spell out correctly his agency's name.
From the start, he said he realized the need to speak in layman's terms. He simplified these also for reporters. He still encountered the problems of misreporting or inaccurate reporting.

Explaining lahar to officials and reporters was one of his tasks. Teasing the Kapampangans who often miss on their "h," he pronounced lahar as "la-ar."

With the big role he played in disaster management, Punongbayan became a sort of soothsayer and at the same time a calming, reassuring figure.

Punongbayan was not only a scientist; he, too, was a technocrat.

As the disaster drew out the best in Phivolcs, it also revealed how poorly equipped it was. It was during Punongbayan's stint, until he retired in 2003, that the agency got grants for new seismic stations, a new building, and more research and study grants.

He always lamented how funds were lacking for his agency that monitored 30 volcanoes and earthquakes in the country.

The "Man of the Year" award that the Inquirer bestowed on him elated him, he said. That was because he said he "only did what I needed to do."

Standing at 5 foot 2 inches and simple in bearing, Punongbayan looked like the common man. He could be lost in the crowd but he got so popular that in forums, his audience would clap wildly when they recognize him.

He retired at 65, but that didn’t mean he stopped working. He took in consultancy jobs for local governments that were conscious of potential threats in their midst.

Before the landslides occurred in eastern Luzon in November and December 2004, Punongbayan was doing research in the area on his own funds.

And so while everybody blamed illegal logging for the many deaths, he gave a loud dissenting opinion, saying that what occurred in the area were flashfloods.

Water from strong rains dammed at the summit and gushed to wash out everything in its path, he said. He gave this assessment after flying over Quezon and Aurora provinces that December.
This correspondent met Punongbayan hours after that flight. In between puffs of cigarette, he said: "The mountain's scarred."

The flight, he added, tired him. "I like flying over mountains, seeing the trees down. The mountain's scarred like Pinatubo was then. Go rush with your story. Flashfloods are what communities should learn to watch out for," he said.

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