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23 December 2011

Philippines flood toll feared doubled as 1000 missing

A boy shovels mud as he cleans his house swamped with mud from flash floods triggered by Typhoon Washi in Iligan city, southern Philippines December 21, 2011.
Image by: ERIK DE CASTRO / REUTERS

The number of people missing after devastating Philippines floods soared to more than 1,000 Friday, doubling the feared toll from a disaster that swept away coastal shantytowns.

As weary survivors prepared for a bleak Christmas, authorities said there were now 1,079 people missing after the weekend's deluge, up from 51, while the confirmed death toll rose to 1,080 from 1,010.

More than half of those killed were from the major port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan on the large southern island of Mindanao, where tens of thousands of homeless survivors are living in crowded evacuation centres.

The big jump in the missing came as rural families reported large numbers of relatives who had gone to work in the hard-hit southern cities and remained unaccounted for, civil defence official Ana Caneda told AFP.

"There are whole families who have gone missing or who died. No one inquired about them before," she told AFP, adding that often there was no one left to report their disappearance to the authorities.

As well, survivors who were recovering from shock or injuries have also only just realised that they have missing family members, Caneda said.

"Victims who could not find their relatives are now inquiring about them."

Philippines authorities have warned that many of the dead may never be found after being swept into the sea as tropical storm Washi brought heavy rains, flash floods and overflowing rivers -- striking as slum-dwellers slept.

Among the missing is rickshaw driver Gilbert Olano, whose grainy photographs were being posted across Cagayan de Oro by his wife Arlene Olano, 41, after floodwaters devastated their neighbourhood.

The photographs bore details of Olano's name, age and a telephone number for people to call with any information on his whereabouts.

"How can we celebrate Christmas without my husband?" the mother-of-three told AFP two days before the mainly Roman Catholic nation's most festive holiday.

The family, among the many poor migrants who have colonised low-lying areas over the past decade, saw their house in the Tibasak shantytown swallowed up and taken away by the rising Cagayan river before dawn Saturday.

"My husband made sure we all got out of the house, but in doing so he got left behind," Olano said.

When their two teenage daughters returned to the place after the waters ebbed, all they saw was a vast field of mud.

"I don't ever want to go back there. I hope the government will make good on its promise to relocate us," said Olano, who said the family had to line up for food rations after escaping the deluge with just the clothes they were wearing.

"Sometimes it takes an hour. Sometimes we run out of food because the menfolk jump the queue. What can I do? I am just a woman."

The government's civil defence agency, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, listed 674 dead and 626 missing in Cagayan de Oro, along with 312 dead and 406 missing in Iligan.

However, civil defence chief Benito Ramos told AFP that the list was "just an estimate" and that noone could say for sure how many people had really been lost.

Caneda, who is based in Cagayan de Oro, said that some of those listed as missing could be among the unidentified bodies piling up at local mortuaries.

In Iligan on Friday, 64-year-old laundry woman Nerissa Baclan lined up outside a church hoping to get food and money as she searched for her daughter Teresa, who was seven months pregnant at the time of the storm.

"She had been living in her new house for just a few months but it was washed away, nothing is left there," said the old woman, who has already found the remains of her three other grown children.

"I am sure she is dead. But I still want to see her," the weeping woman said.

The United Nations, which launched a $28.6 million aid appeal on Thursday, likened the force of the disaster to that of a tsunami.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it would airlift 42 tonnes of emergency shelters, blankets, and kitchen implements later Friday to the flood areas.

- Times Live