By: Floyd Whaley
MANILA: With many roads and bridges washed away, rescue teams struggled to reach isolated villages in the southern Philippines after a powerful out-of-season typhoon tore through the region, leaving at least 325 people dead and several hundred more missing, officials said.
Typhoon Bopha packed winds of up to 160km/h when it struck on Tuesday, bringing torrential rains that flattened entire villages and left thousands homeless.
The deaths were concentrated in the Compostela Valley, a mountainous gold mining area, and the neighbouring province of Davao Oriental, on the eastern coast of the southern island of Mindanao, a military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Lyndon Paniza, said on Wednesday.
The Office of Civil Defence reported on Thursday morning that the death toll had risen to at least 325, and rescuers were searching through mud and debris for 379 people reported missing, according to the Associated Press.
Most of the typhoon’s victims appeared to have drowned or been hit by falling trees or flying debris, officials said.
”There is debris in the road, so our soldiers are moving by foot,” Colonel Paniza said. ”They are crossing rivers and landslides. I don’t want to speculate, but we don’t know what they will find when they reach those cut-off areas.”
Some soldiers died when a landslide washed out their patrol base, and others disappeared while on rescue operations.
Local TV crews broadcast grisly footage of mud-covered bodies being loaded into trucks in villages that appeared flattened by the storm. In some areas, not a single structure could be seen standing.
In areas where roads were washed out, the government sent boats to take relief material from the provincial capital of Mati to remote coastal areas. ”I have thus authorised the local government of Mati, its mayor and the provincial governor, to use their calamity funds to hire all available large, local fishing boats for an immediate sea-lift transfer of goods to the affected areas,” Manuel Roxas, the interior secretary, said.
The eastern coast of Mindanao, which was the area hardest hit, is a remote, impoverished agricultural area. Mr Roxas told reporters on Wednesday that during his visit to the area he had seen tens of thousands of coconut trees flattened and many hectares of destroyed banana plantations.
In New Bataan, the town hit hardest by the storm, Virgilia Babaag waited nervously in her home before dawn on Tuesday as hard rain from the approaching typhoon pounded her village. ”My neighbours started yelling, ‘The water is coming fast! Run! Run!”’ she said on Wednesday by telephone.
Ms Babaag gathered up her three young nieces staying with her and ran through the night towards high ground. There she stayed with dozens of others as winds ripped through the town.
”When I came back, my roof was gone,” she said from her devastated home.
”The houses around my place are destroyed. There are so many who have died here. The soldiers are still finding more.”
The Philippines is hit by as many as 20 powerful tropical storms each year, but this one struck remote communities south of the usual typhoon path.
”This is the first time that the people in this area have experienced a storm like this,” Colonel Paniza said. ”They aren’t accustomed to big storms.”
Last December, tropical storm Washi – another out-of-season storm that hit south of the usual Philippine typhoon belt – killed more than 1200 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
This year, officials issued warnings days in advance and implemented mandatory evacuations of vulnerable communities.
President Benigno Aquino, stung by criticism last year that the government had not done enough to prepare for Washi, went on TV the day before the storm hit and pleaded with people to follow the instructions of local government officials.
”I am facing you now because the incoming storm is no laughing matter,” he said. ”We expect the co-operation of everyone so that nobody gets in harm’s way.”