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Philippine floods: Search for survivors

2011-12-18 19:11

Cagayan de Oro - Rescuers struggled against mud, fatigue and the stench of death on Sunday to help survivors of devastating flash floods that have killed more than 650 people in the southern Philippines.

As bodies that had washed out to sea began rising to the surface, mortuaries were overwhelmed in the port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan on Mindanao island in the aftermath of tropical storm Washi.

Local officials in Iligan said they were preparing to bury unclaimed bodies in a mass grave on Monday.

Entire villages were swept away by floodwaters as residents, normally spared from typhoons that ravage other parts of the Philippines every year, slept in the early hours of Saturday despite storm warnings.

The Philippine Red Cross said that 652 people had been confirmed dead by its field staff and another 808 were currently listed as missing.

The head of the government's disaster response agency, Benito Ramos, said its own count stood at 516 deaths and 274 missing but conceded that the toll would likely go higher.

"I'm out here retrieving bodies that are starting to rise to the surface," Ramos told AFP by cellphone from a rescue boat off Cagayan de Oro.

President Benigno Aquino has ordered a review of the country's disaster defences as it became apparent that residents were unprepared.

Prayers

Pope Benedict XVI prayed for the victims of the latest natural disaster to hit the largely Roman Catholic archipelago, which is also prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The United States offered assistance as Manila appealed for help to feed, clothe and house more than 35 000 people in evacuation centres.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent condolences and said in a statement: "The US government stands ready to assist Philippine authorities as they respond to this tragedy."

China was one of the first countries to announce cash donations.

A 20 000-strong military force normally involved in fighting Muslim insurgents in Mindanao was leading rescue and relief operations but the efforts were hampered by masses of mud left behind by floodwaters.

An AFP photographer saw a 30-member military and police rescue team landing on Sunday in Bayug, a delta area near Iligan that was formerly home to a fishing community estimated by social welfare officials to have had up to 1 000 residents.

The delta had been swept clean of most structures, leaving those left alive having to rebuild huts with scrap wood.

Military reports from Bayug showed 270 survivors had been accounted for.

Bodies turned away

In Cagayan de Oro, corpses were piling up unclaimed at mortuaries and overworked staff ran out of embalming fluid, coffins and water to clean them.

One establishment, Somo Funeral Homes, turned away the bodies of two drowned children.

"We are already swamped. We only have four embalmers," its owner Ryan Somo told AFP.

Local authorities opened up fire hydrants and residents quickly formed long lines to get fresh water in the city of half a million people.

In the nearby hamlet of Macasandig off the Cagayan river, teacher's wife Divilita Cuartero, 38, said she saw two dead bodies in the wreckage near her own home.

"I'm thankful that we woke up in time and were able to run toward the road, otherwise we would be dead by now," said the mother of one.

The Red Cross listed 346 deaths in Cagayan de Oro and 206 in Iligan.

Smaller tolls were reported in other parts of Mindanao and the central province of Negros Oriental.

Ramos, the disaster agency chief, said most of the victims were "informal settlers" - a term often used for internal migrants who are unregistered as residents or property owners.

"They were not prepared for the typhoon. Our weather bureau had already warned them way ahead but they had not heeded the advice," he said, adding that floods struck "at an unholy hour, 02:00, when everybody was asleep".

Climate change

Ramos speculated that climate change could have been a factor in the unusual trajectory of the storm.

"Northern Mindanao is not a typhoon path," he said by telephone.

Authorities likened tropical storm Washi to Ketsana, one of the country's most devastating storms which dumped huge amounts of rain on Manila and other parts of the country in 2009, killing more than 460 people.