December 5, 2012
MANILA — With many roads and bridges washed away, rescue teams struggled Wednesday 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 100 miles per hour when it struck Tuesday, bringing torrential rains that destroyed villages and left thousands homeless.
The deaths were concentrated in the province of Compostela Valley, a mountainous gold mining area, and the neighboring province of Davao Oriental, on the eastern coast of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Lt. Col. Lyndon Paniza, a military spokesman, said in a telephone interview late Wednesday afternoon.
The Office of Civil Defense reported 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.
A total of 184 had perished in Compostela Valley, including 78 villagers and soldiers who died in a flash flood that swamped two emergency shelters and a military camp.
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 disappeared while on search-and-rescue operations.
Local television 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 seagoing vessels to take relief goods to remote coastal areas from the provincial capital of Davao Oriental, Mati.
“I have thus authorized 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 in a statement.
The eastern coast of Mindanao, which was the area hardest hit by the storm, 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 fallen coconut trees and many acres of destroyed banana plantations.
In New Bataan, the town hit hardest by the storm, Virgilia Babaag had been waiting nervously in her home before dawn on Tuesday as hard rain from the approaching typhoon pounded her small village.
“My neighbors started yelling, ‘The water is coming fast! Run! Run!’ ” she said Wednesday by telephone.
Ms. Babaag gathered up her three young nieces staying with her and ran through the night toward 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 1,200 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
This year, officials put out strong warnings days in advance and carried out mandatory early evacuations of vulnerable communities.
President Benigno S. Aquino III, stung by criticism last year that the national government had not done enough to prepare for Tropical Storm Washi, went on television 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,” Mr. Aquino said, adding later, “We expect the cooperation of everyone so that nobody gets in harm’s way.”