The death toll from a typhoon that ravaged the Philippines jumped to 274 yesterday, with hundreds more missing, as rescuers battled to reach areas cut off by floods and mudslides.
Typhoon Bopha slammed into the southern island of Mindanao on Tuesday, toppling trees and blowing away thousands of homes with 210kph gusts, before easing and heading toward the South China Sea.
A total of 253 people died in and around the gold-rush mountain towns of New Bataan and Monkayo due to typhoon-spawned landslides and flash floods, civil defense chief Benito Ramos told reporters.
Twenty-one people were killed in other parts of the southern island of Mindanao and the central islands, he added.
Cabinet members Philippine Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Philippine Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, who flew to the south to inspect the damage, described scenes of utter devastation, with thousands of houses ripped apart and corpses lying on the ground.
“These are whole families, six or seven names with the same surnames. It is saddening to think entire families have been washed away,” Roxas said.
“There is hardly any structure that is undamaged,” he said in an interview with ABS-CBN television.
“We need to rush to these areas body bags, medicines, dry clothes and most importantly tents, because survivors are living out in the open,” Soliman said.
Bodies caked in mud were being transported on the back of army trucks and laid out in rows on tarpaulins, where relatives searching for missing family members broke down as they identified the shrouded corpses of loved ones.
Shell-shocked survivors scrabbled through the rubble of their homes to find anything that could be recovered among a surrounding wasteland of flattened banana and coconut trees.
Ramos said 279 other people were still missing, while 339 others were being treated for injuries.
About 178,000 people remained huddled in evacuation centers, mostly crowded schoolhouses, gyms and other government buildings, officials said.
Meanwhile, rescue personnel still struggled to reach areas cut off by the storm where many more casualties might be found.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he hoped the nation was learning from its frequent natural disasters, including roughly 20 cyclones that hit each year.
“Any single casualty is a cause for distress. Our aim must always be about finding ways to lessen them,” he told reporters in Manila, while pointing out the “big difference” in casualty counts compared with previous storms.
The more than 500 dead or missing in Bopha was still below the 1,200 deaths from Tropical Storm Washi, which hit in December last year, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless in Mindanao, he said.
Aquino said the government was investigating why an army patrol base in New Bataan, which was washed away in flash floods, had been located in a flood-prone area.
Officials were also checking reports that an evacuation center there was among the structures wiped out in the floods, the president added.
“According to [survivors], there is a small lake on the mountain that gave way, so the waters flowed down, not just along the rivers ... but all across, like a waterfall, bringing a slurry that covered the whole town,” Roxas said.