CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines, Dec 18 – Philippine rescuers struggled against mud, fatigue and the stench of death on Sunday to help dazed survivors of devastating flash floods that have killed more than 500 people.,
Entire villages were washed away when tropical storm Washi whipped the south as people slept in the early hours of Saturday, leaving a trail of flattened homes, broken bridges and upended vehicles in the poverty-stricken country.
The government and the Philippine National Red Cross appealed for help to feed, clothe and house more than 35,000 people huddled in evacuation centres as soldiers battled to recover bodies from the cloying mud.
A 20,000-strong military force has been mobilised in a huge rescue and relief operation across the stricken north coast of the island of Mindanao, where the major ports of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan were worst hit.
Local freelance reporter Leonardo Vicente Corrales told AFP that rotting corpses were piling up unclaimed at mortuaries in Cagayan de Oro as overworked staff ran out of embalming fluid, coffins, and water to clean them.
“The bodies are decomposing too quickly because they are drowning victims — because there is muddy water in their bodies,” he said.
The Red Cross said 532 people had been confirmed dead in the south. The number of missing had risen to 458, it said, while cautioning that some of them might be among the bodies retrieved but not yet identified.
The mayor of Cagayan de Oro, Vicente Emano, said he expected the death toll to reach 500 just in his city, which has a population of half a million.
One establishment, Somo Funeral Homes, refused to accept the bodies of two drowned children because it already had too many corpses to handle.
“We can’t accept the drowned children. We are already swamped. We only have four embalmers,” said Ryan Somo, whose family owns the establishment.
Given a dire lack of drinking water, the city government in Cagayan de Oro opened up fire hydrants and long lines soon formed as residents queued for fresh water.
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.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent condolences to the Philippines and said in a statement: “The US government stands ready to assist Philippine authorities as they respond to this tragedy.”
Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine National Red Cross, warned that many more bodies could still be found as rescuers struggle to reach devastated areas.
“We are only counting the actual dead bodies that were sent to funeral parlours,” she told AFP.
“The affected area is so wide and huge and I believe they have not really gone to all areas to do a search.”
Philippine President Benigno Aquino has ordered a review of the country’s disaster defences amid a flurry of accounts that residents were unprepared for such a deadly storm.
He is also planning a visit to the affected areas this week, a presidential spokeswoman said.
Benito Ramos, executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, said the government faced a formidable task in rehabilitation and reconstruction.
The national government has begun airlifting mats, blankets and clothes to the affected populations of the south, who are being fed by local governments, he added.
Apart from those at evacuation centres — schools, government buildings and local gymnasiums — he said the disaster affected more than 100,000 people in one way or another who would need immediate help in rebuilding their lives.
Debris has to be cleared, electricity and drinking water have to be restored and damaged roads and bridges must be repaired, officials said.
Two army divisions — about 20,000 soldiers — based in Mindanao are leading the rescue and relief work. The island is the scene of a long-running insurgency led by Muslim separatists in the mainly Roman Catholic nation.
Pang at the Red Cross said rescuers were heartened by the survivors’ mental toughness.
“They are trying to rebuild. They are so resilient. Instead of all evacuating, they have gone back to their homes,” she said.