, ILIGAN, Philippines,Dec 17 – Tropical storm Washi raked across the southern Philippines, unleashing mammoth floods across vast areas that left 180 people dead and nearly 400 others missing, officials said Saturday.
They said 20,000 soldiers had 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.
Iligan mayor Lawrence Cruz described rampaging floodwaters from swollen rivers that swamped up to a quarter of the land area of the city of 100,000.
“It’s the worst flood in the history of our city,” Cruz told GMA television. “It happened so fast, at a time when people were fast asleep.”
The station showed dramatic pictures of a family escaping out of the window of their home in the town as the floods rose, and rescue workers in orange vests shepherding survivors to safety above chest-deep waters.
Marlyn Manos, an Iligan resident, recounted how she and her children watched in terror from their rooftop as flash floods demolished neighbours’ homes.
“All the small houses behind ours were destroyed, and many of my neighbours are missing,” she said.
The region’s military spokesmen said 97 bodies were recovered in Cagayan de Oro, with another 75 bodies found in Iligan.
In Iligan another 250 people remained unaccounted for, they said, with 125 people missing in Cagayan de Oro, a city of half a million people.
Three people also drowned in the town of Polanco and five were killed in a landslide in mountains near the town of Monkayo, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said in Manila.
Benito Ramos, the council’s executive director, suggested some residents had underestimated the threat posed by the approaching storm, in a region which is outside the country’s typhoon belt.
“Storms rarely hit this area and people probably became complacent even though they knew it was heading their way,” Ramos said.
Eric Carillo, an Iligan resident, told GMA the rains started pouring heavily late Friday but his family, who emerged alive from the floods, were not unduly alarmed and did not seek higher ground.
“I’ve been around for 47 years and this was the worst flooding I have ever experienced,” he added.
Iligan tourism officer Pat Noel told AFP waters began rising shortly before midnight (1600 GMT Friday) as people slept, sweeping houses made of light materials and their inhabitants along the riverbanks.
“Many of them told me they sought refuge on their rooftops,” he said after joining the first wave of rescuers at daybreak.
Two of the three rivers that flow into the port of Iligan had overflowed, he added, and a popular radio commentator was among those killed.
Weather forecasters said the eye of the storm passed close to the southern tip of the central island of Negros on Saturday morning.
It was expected to hit the western island of Palawan on Saturday night after crossing the Sulu Sea, with peak winds of 75 miles (46.6 miles) an hour, the state weather service said.