When college sophomore Eduardo Pantua Laguerta quit his education in 1978, he did not expect to be employed by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, then Commission on Volcanology (Comvol). He believes it was destiny that brought him to Phivolcs where he is now the senior science research specialist and resident volcanologist at the Mayon Volcano Observatory.
Laguerta is the oldest of five siblings. His parents, both of whom grew up in their relatives’ houses when they were orphaned, wanted them to finish their studies.
His father, a farmer, was not able to support his education in Far Eastern University where he was taking up BS in General Engineering.
Since Christmas Day of 1933, Bulusan Volcano has not shown any signs of unrest, so it was a surprise to the residents in towns around the volcano when it had a phreatic eruption with ash columns reaching up to 1.5 kilometers on July 29, 1978, and 3 kilometers on August 14 of the same year.
“I did not have interest in volcanos. When I was growing up, volcanology wasn’t something people talked about especially where I grew up because Bulusan was quiet for a period,” Laguerta, who is now 63, said.
He said there was no observatory in Bulusan then. Having been forced to quit his schooling and having nothing else to do in his hometown Irosin, he applied to Comvol as an emergency employee.
“Back then, the government wasn’t so strict. Even high school graduates can be a government employee,” he said.
They were using analog records of seismographs to monitor the volcano. He was taught by the volcanologist and the engineers how to process the information they get. His bosses must have seen the potential in Laguerta that they employed him as a regular employee.
“Nature has a way of sending you to your destiny,” Laguerta said. “I was destined to be in this profession and Mount Bulusan helped me.”
When he became a permanent employee of the commission as a utility man who has about the same job as the volcanologists and then as a radio operator in his late 20s, he said his dream was to finish his studies.
Comvol then became Philippine Institute of Volcanology (Phivolc) bunder Director Raymundo Punongbayan.
“I requested to finish my studies. The management was kind to me and then I moved to Manila in 1982 to finish General Engineering,” Laguerta said.
He was then working in archiving data and transmitting information from the field via radio. He was part of the quick response team during the 1990 Luzon earthquake that killed more than 1,500 Filipinos.
In 1991, he finished his studies and Phivolc has long been renamed to Phivolcs. He was sent to Pinatubo when it erupted in 1991 as part of the team. He used the time after that to get trainings both here and abroad before he went back to Bicol, this time in Albay during the 1993 eruption of Mayon Volcano. When Mayon calmed down, he was assigned here permanently.
Pros and cons
“It is a challenge because you are studying something you cannot see,” Laguerta said. “You have to interpret what is going on beneath the surface based on the pulses of the electronics.”
“As a volcanologist, you have many roles as the assigned head of an observatory. It’s not just science anymore. There’s political implications because you are the one talking to leaders.”
Laguerta said he found it difficult at first. He knows how to process and detect what kind of earthquake occurred or why it happened, but he kept on thinking what would happen if he commits a mistake when leaders and communities within risk areas are expecting him to be exact. But he said the technology they have now have made it easier especially when they are communicating their findings to Manila.
“You need to have what we call here in Bicol ‘halawig ang pisi’ (extended temper) and you have to think of who you’re representing because if you are careless and you make rash judgement, it will reflect on the office.”
He said that it is difficult to make careless judgement especially since every decision made by the local government unit (LGU) involves safety of both rescuees and rescuers, time, and public money.
Future of volcanology
Laguerta says that it is calm in the observatory when Mayon is not exhibiting unrest, but since Phivolcs is public service-oriented and many educational institutions and non-government organizations are interested in studying the volcano, he has to do social interactions with other intitutions and LGUs.
“We also have to learn new approaches using new softwares. Us older generations of volcanologists must learn how to use new technology, but what if some are not adaptable to new electronics?” he said.
“As head, I cannot force the older volcanologists to have a grasp of new technology. The younger ones only need very few instructions and a manual. They grew up with these kinds of technology,” Laguerta said.
Although he said that new technology has made it easier to predict the weather at higher altitudes and to observe the volcano from afar with drones, he said he hopes the future technology will make studying volcanos just like how the Philippine Athmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) predicts weather—that they will know what will happen beneath the surface.
“Hopefully, volcanology in the future can be forecast. There are forecasts today, but you look at the day-to-day activity. The younger volcanologists must aim to make design a technology that will let us see processes underneath a volcano,” Laguerta said.
He also said volcanologists must still learn the past behaviors of volcanoes to know how they behave. This, he says, the younger volcanologists must still study no matter what new technologies offer.
Part 1: Mariton Bornas
Part 3: What is lahar?
Part 4: Don’t judge Mayon’s alert level by the pics you see online
Part 5: Non-local Heroes
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