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Mass burial readied as Philippine flood rescuers struggle
by Staff Writers
Cagayan De Oro, Philippines (AFP) Dec 18, 2011

Philippine floods toll 652 dead with 808 missing
Manila, Philippines (AFP) Dec 18, 2011 - The death toll from mammoth floods unleashed in the southern Philippines by tropical storm Washi has climbed to 652 with 808 others missing, the Red Cross said Sunday.

The devastated port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in Mindanao island accounted for most of the deaths, the agency said.

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

US 'ready' to help Philippines after deadly storm
Washington (AFP) Dec 17, 2011 - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent condolences to the Philippines Saturday after more than 600 people were feared killed in a storm, and said the United States stood "ready" to help.

Relief workers said that 440 people had died and nearly 200 left missing after tropical storm Washi wreaked havoc in the southern Philippines, unleashing mammoth floods across vast areas of the country and destroying whole neighborhoods.

"On behalf of President (Barack) Obama and the people of the United States, I want to send my deepest condolences for the devastation and loss of life caused by flooding from Tropical Storm Washi," Clinton said in a statement.

"The US government stands ready to assist Philippine authorities as they respond to this tragedy."

The top US diplomat said "our thoughts and prayers are with all of those affected."

About 20,000 soldiers have been mobilized 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.

President Benigno Aquino expressed concern at the extent of the tragedy and ordered government agencies to map out areas in the country most vulnerable to future flash floods.

Rescuers struggled to help survivors and a ravaged city prepared for a mass burial as the death toll from devastating flash floods in the southern Philippines rose past 650 on Sunday.

With hundreds more still listed as missing, tropical storm Washi left Philippine territory after dumping heavy rains that overwhelmed rivers in the port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan on Mindanao island at the weekend.

Iligan, where more than 200 people were killed, was preparing to bury unclaimed bodies in a mass grave as early as Monday because of their advanced state of decomposition.

City health officer Liddy Villarin said body bags will be marked for possible exhumation.

"We will put markings on the cadaver bags which will give the physical features of each body before they put them in the mass grave," she said.

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 652 people had been confirmed dead by its field staff and another 808 were currently listed as missing.

Gwendolyn Pang, the organisation's secretary-general, told AFP that bodies buried in mass graves will have to be properly marked, photographed and mapped for future identification.

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

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

President Benigno Aquino is set to visit the disaster zone on Tuesday after ordering a review of the country's disaster defences.

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.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton 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 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.

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.

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 used for internal migrants who are often unregistered.

"They were not prepared for the typhoon," he said, adding that floods struck "at an unholy hour, 2:00 am, when everybody was asleep."

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.

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Child coffins run out in Philippine flood city
Cagayan De Oro, Philippines (AFP) Dec 18, 2011 - Dexter Lacson has run out of children's coffins as wave upon wave of bloated corpses threatens to overwhelm his southern Philippine mortuary after the most fearsome flash floods in living memory.

Thirty hours after the floods pulverised the city of Cagayan de Oro, the undertaker's stocks of embalming formaldehyde are low and small-size caskets have gone entirely due to the sheer number of child victims.

"We are swamped. I only have five embalmers. It takes an average of four hours for each body but we have 200-plus bodies," a bleary-eyed Lacson, wearing only a basketball jersey and bermuda shorts, said on Sunday.

Frequent power cuts and the lack of tap water are the other problems his business, the Bollozos Funeral Parlour, has to deal with after the onslaught of tropical storm Washi.

The parlour's hallways are filled with bodies stacked up like logs. Many look as if they are starting to decompose in the tropical humidity, the bodies full of rancid floodwater. The reek is vomit-inducing.

Leonardo Vicente Corrales, one of many journalists reporting on a disaster that has claimed more than 500 lives across the south, counted 60 bodies at the rival Somo Funeral Parlour and 70 at another, called Cosmopolitan.

Officially, the Philippine Red Cross has tallied 248 fatalities in Cagayan de Oro from the floods, but says hundreds more people are missing overall.

Sixty percent of the bodies at Bollozos have not been identified or claimed, Lacson said, and they could become a health hazard soon.

Vicente Emano, the mayor of Cagayan de Oro, a port city of half a million people, said he recognised the threat.

"I believe the city death toll would eventually reach about 500," he said on Manila radio station DZMM in a telephone interview.

"The problem is, some mortuaries are starting to refuse them," he said.

"We're looking for a place to put all the recovered bodies."

City assistant health officer Joselito Retuya suggested to AFP that most could end up in a common pit.

"After we have identified all the dead bodies, we may have to arrange for a mass burial."

Some of the city's dead came from a shantytown called Isla Delta, which lies on a sandy bank near the mouth of the Cagayan river, nestled beneath a wall of giant billboards.

Mother-of-four Evangeline Quider told AFP the neighbourhood had 30 dead and 100 missing after the rampaging river flattened rows of slum homes made of wood and corrugated metal roofing sheets, including her family's hovel.

"We were sleeping and when we awoke, the water was already waist-deep. We immediately fled from the house, we had to climb up a billboard to reach higher ground," she said.

From there the family witnessed the deluge. Some houses were torn apart by floating debris, she said.

Venus Torres, a 48-year-old vendor, saw a sister, three nieces, and a granddaughter drown inside their shared house in the neighbouring slum called Isla de Oro.

She barely made it out alive by punching a hole through the roof of her home.

"We are used to having floods that are ankle or knee-deep. They (her relatives) did not evacuate," Torres said.

Quider, 42, used torn bits of wood from the wreckage to build a fire.

"All I have is wet rice. We can still eat it," she said.

Neighbours drew water from the brownish river to wash their flood-soiled clothes, while children huddled in one area.

Local benefactors trucked in tap water and porridge, which the shantytown survivors gratefully lapped up.

"We will still live here. We will just pick up some scrap wood and build a shack," Quider said.


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Nearly 600 dead and missing in Philippines storm
Iligan, Philippines (AFP) Dec 17, 2011
Tropical storm Washi raked across the southern Philippines, unleashing mammoth floods across vast areas that left almost 200 people dead and nearly 400 more 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 ... read more

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