Natural Disasters and Cultural Change

By Robin Torrence; John Grattan | Go to book overview

4

Bacolor town and Pinatubo volcano, Philippines: coping with recurrent lahar disaster

K.S. CRITTENDEN AND K.S. RODOLFO


INTRODUCTION

This chapter illustrates the extraordinary resilience of people in the face of catastrophe and the persistence of settlement even in the face of repeated environmental threat. The behaviour described below is a salutary lesson to all archaeological researchers that it is dangerous to assume that there is a clear correlation between threat and cultural response. In reality, as this chapter illustrates, the relationship is very complicated and conditioned by socio-cultural influences that may not be detectable in the archaeological record.

Mt Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption, the world’s most powerful in 89 years, left 5 to 7 km3 of loose, hot debris on the flanks of this Philippine volcano. The greatest damage was not wreaked during the eruption itself, but during the monsoon- typhoon seasons of the next five years. Annual intense and prolonged rains have mobilised huge amounts of the debris into lahars (flowing slurries) that have buried widespread areas in debris, centimetres to metres thick. Often boiling hot, the Pinatubo lahars have flowed down five major channels of the volcano, some as fast as 35 km/h. As of this writing (2000), much debris remains on the volcano and can still be mobilised into lahars. Additionally, the lahar deposits may be remobilised into new flows.

Bacolor, a municipality on the southeastern apron of Pinatubo volcano, has suffered most from lahars descending along the Pasig-Potrero river. These have buried all but one of its barangays (villages) in deposits up to 9 m thick. The majority of the people in the town proper have abandoned their homes; however, almost 2,000 have refused to leave. Exemplifying the intensity of people’s attachment to place, even in the face of ongoing disaster, they have raised their houses on high stilts and struggled to keep their town alive. After describing the physical setting and history of Bacolor, the eruption and the ensuing years of lahar events, we consider how the townspeople have been affected by and responded to the recurring disaster and the patterns of adaptation that have emerged as they have become more familiar with the threat.

In general, natural hazards are governed by the ‘magnitude-frequency’

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