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Philippines floods: victims tell of panic as wall of water hit cities

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Devastating flash floods have drowned hundreds of people in their beds in two southern Philippine cities. Twelve hours of heavy rain from a tropical storm swelled rivers and sent walls of water crashing into homes in the Mindanao region late on Friday night, wiping out whole families, many of whom had been at Christmas parties.

There was confusion over the number of casualties but the death toll was thought to be more than 400 with double that number missing. Many people are believed to have been swept out to sea by the torrents, which left the coastal area strewn with debris, toppled trees and overturned vehicles. Rescue boats were scouring the water for survivors.

Roads were cut off and there was no electricity, hampering relief efforts in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, which are intersected by rivers, as well as surrounding villages.

Thousands of soldiers, backed up by hundreds of local police, reservists, coast guard officers and civilian volunteers, were mobilised for rescue efforts and to clean up after the massive deluge left an estimated 100,000 people displaced, according to the department of social welfare and development.

Explaining why so many lives were lost so quickly, local resident Juvanni Yahya Caballero said: “It happened at midnight and many people were tired because of the Christmas parties that they had been to. And the rain poured hard while it was high tide. I personally saw 14 people dead in the morning when the search and rescue was going on.”

Caballero’s cousin, who had a two-year-old daughter, and another cousin were sleeping when the floods rushed into their house. “They tried to go outside to join their neighbours but found the water was up to their necks. The baby’s mother was swept away by rushing water but luckily got hold of a big tree andmanaged to tie the baby to a banana tree.”

By 4am, the water had subsided to chest level, enough for the mother to search for her baby. “Miraculously, she found her baby still clinging onto the banana trunk and alive,” Caballero added. “We were so worried we had lost my [other] cousin, until she appeared at 8am with the story of how she survived.”

Caballero added: “The estimates of affected families are based on the number of people who went to the evacuation centres, but exclude those who went to friends’ or relatives’ homes.”

Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine National Red Cross, said the casualty list was expected to rise. “Our death toll was based on the actual number of bodies that were brought to funeral homes in the two cities that were the hardest hit by the typhoon,” Pang said, adding that it was difficult to estimate how many people were still unaccounted for, but most of them were from a coastal village in Iligan.

Flooding and tropical storms are unusual in this part of the Philippines and the chief of the government’s Civil Defence Office, Benito Ramos, attributed the high death toll in Mindanao “partly to the complacency of people because they are not in the usual path of storms”. However, there had been four days of warnings by officials that tropical storm Washi was approaching. The tempest dumped a month of average rainfall in the area in just 12 hours.

Ayi Hernandez, a former congressman, said he and his family were at home late on Friday when they heard a loud “swooshing sound” and they were suddenly ankle-deep in water inside his house. They went next door to a neighbour’s two-storey house. “It was a good thing because in less than an hour the water rose to about 11ft [the height of the ceiling of his house],” he said.

Iligan’s mayor, Lawrence Cruz, said the floodwaters were waist-high in areas that have never seen flooding before and scores of residents escaped by climbing on to roofs.

Those missing included a prominent radio broadcaster, Enie Alsonado, who was swept away while trying to save his neighbours, Cruz said.

Save the Children’s country director in the Philippines, Anna Lindenfors, said many of the victims would be children. “We are hearing reports that the majority of those who have died in the floods are children, who are always most vulnerable in these situations. Children who have survived this disaster will be hungry, frightened and exhausted.

“We are especially worried about children who may have been separated from their parents during the flooding, as rains continue to fall and there is a very real risk of landslides causing further damage. Save the Children teams are on the ground in the area, and will launch an emergency response as soon as possible.”

Regional politician Rufus Rodriguez said around 20,000 residents of Cagayan de Oro city had been affected and that evacuees were packed in temporary shelters. About 100,000 people have been displaced by the floods.

Television footage showed muddy water rushing in the streets, sweeping away everything in its path. Thick layers of mud coated streets where the waters had subsided.

Rescue workers were pulling bodies from mud and from under fallen concrete walls and roofs. Sixty people were pulled from the Pacific Ocean off El Salvador city, about six miles northwest of Cagayan de Oro, said official Teddy Sabuga-a. About 120 more were rescued off Opol township, closer to the city, he said.

Weather expert Leny Ruiz said that the records show that a storm of such ferocity comes only once in about 12 years. Army spokesman Colonel Leopoldo Galon said: “I have not seen anything like this before.”


Featured Photo: Erwin Mascarinas/AP
December 17, 2011
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