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22 December 2011

Death toll from flash floods in southern Philippines tops 1,000 with more missing

Philippine Navy personnel arrange coffins that will be shipped with drinking water, clothes and other relief goods to flood-stricken Cagayan De Oro and Iligan cities on board a Philippine Navy ship in Manila, Philippines on Tuesday. - AP

ILIGAN, Philippines — The official death toll from last week’s massive flash flooding in two southern Philippine cities topped 1,000 on Wednesday, while authorities said they have lost count of the missing in one of the worst calamities to hit the region.

A total of 1,002 people have been confirmed dead, including 650 in Cagayan de Oro and 283 in nearby Iligan city, said Benito Ramos, head of the Civil Defense Office. The rest were in several other southern and central provinces.

A tropical storm swept through the area Friday night, unleashing flash floods that caught most of the victims in their sleep.

“There were many lessons learned by the people who did not listen to national and local governments, but this is not the time to put the blame on them,” Ramos told The Associated Press, adding that warnings by weather forecasters of an approaching storm went unheeded.

He said the government continues to focus on retrieving bodies, most of which are being recovered from the sea off Cagayan de Oro.

“We’ve lost count of the missing,” he said.

President Benigno Aquino III declared a state of national calamity during a visit to the region Tuesday and promised the government “will do its best to prevent a repeat of this tragedy.”

He said there would be an assessment of why so many people died and why those living along riverbanks and close to the coast — most of them illegal settlers — had not been moved to safety.

Illegal logging is another factor believed to have contributed to the staggering death toll as many victims were swept away by huge logs that rolled down denuded mountains facing the two cities. Logging and deforestation also contribute to soil erosion and trigger mudslides.

Aquino declared a ban on logging in February but weak law enforcement and corruption make it a recurring problem.

With funeral parlors overwhelmed in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, authorities and grieving relatives have begun burying the dead.

Authorities in Iligan buried at least 16 unidentified bodies after a grim process of obtaining fingerprints, dental records and DNA samples from decomposing remains to be used for future identification.

“It takes at least an hour per body,” said Dr. Reynaldo Romero, head of a disaster victim identification team from the National Bureau of Investigation. “As long as there are bodies, we will continue to process them.”

About 45,000 people are still crowded in evacuation centers as aid workers rush in relief supplies. Lack of running water is a major concern.

“We have enough food and water here but we don’t have clothes,” said Analiza Osado, one of many survivors living in Iligan’s biggest gymnasium. “Everything is gone.”

- AP