Friday, April 29, 2005

Volcanologist passed away but he is remembered

"THE HEAVENS fell" is an apt description of what people saw in the sky when Mount Pinatubo erupted. That media event rearranged the course of history and the meaning of life in the minds of statesmen and politicians, the moralists and the superstitious, poets and scientists, businessmen and believers, and the man in the street.

One person who refused to be intimidated by such apocalyptics was Raymundo S. Punongbayan, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.
With his calm voice and warm paternal face wearing a twitch of a smile, he virtually took the helm of government and directed the nation out of chaos and ignorance in those days of massive mudflow, sulfur, pyroclastics and lahar.

last April when the volcano started acting up to the monsoon months, when lahar was sweeping over the Central Plains, Punongbayan was a byword on the lips of a terrified people.

Most credible

Punongbayan was a most credible man because he was "ordinary." A geology major, married to a nurse, and father of four, he taught at the University of the Philippines before he joined Phivolcs in 1982 when the institute was just an obscure department at the Manila weather bureau.
His name was first heard during the earthquake that devastated Luzon in July 1990.

Punongbayan is aware that the country's resources hardly provide for its tectonic setting.
Though one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries with an average of five quakes a day, the Philippines lacks seismic stations, monitoring equipment and trained personnel. Only one of our 12 seismic stations has a telephone. First reports of earthquakes here come from monitoring services in Hong Kong or the United States.

In 1987, Punongbayan first raised his voice to call on government for disaster preparedness. No one listened, until the killer quake struck in 1990 and hundreds of lives were lost.

Sleepless in land of volcanoes

In early 1991, his voice was again heard warning of volcanic eruptions. This time everybody listened, and so thousands of lives were saved.

Punongbayan is one of the few men sitting in vigil over the nation day and night. There is no holiday for him because all the days look the same.

"You can't take long naps because volcanoes don't sleep," he once said in an interview.

"My kids are excited about my job, but my wife is not," he said, looking forward to a time when he can stay home and cook for his family, maybe write poems as he used to, or do some sketches, without bothering about earthquake-and-volcano updates.

Unlike typhoons, the occurrence of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions can never be predicted by even the most modern technology. Aside from keeping a 24-hour watch on dangerous mountains such as Pinatubo, Taal, Mayon, Kanlaon, Hibok-Hibok and Bulusan, Punongbayan has to soothe the people's panic or even their anger at the bad news he brings, such as his recent revelation about the Marikina Fault.

But how can one watch over a land with 200 volcanoes, 21 of them active, and still get some sleep?

Making do with primitive tools, a man with the level-headedness of Punongbayan faced Pinatubo as it spewed an apocalyptic amount of energy.

Grateful nation

The nation is grateful for that calm, analytical mind that confronted the fury of a mountain that has reshaped geography and the lives of millions.

The nation is grateful to Punongbayan and his comforting presence that forged ahead, like Moses leading his people out of the plagues, in the time of terror and devotion.

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