CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines (Reuters) – More than 400 people were killed and an unknown number were missing after a typhoon struck the southern Philippines, causing flash floods and landslides and driving tens of thousands from their homes.
In a text message to Reuters, Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC), said the death toll of 436 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 it was difficult to estimate how many were still unaccounted for.
Typhoon Washi, with winds gusting up to 90 kmh (56 mph), barrelled into the resource-rich island of Mindanao late on Friday, bringing heavy rain that also grounded some domestic flights and left wide areas without power.
Emergency workers, soldiers and police were recovering more bodies – most covered in mud – washed ashore in nearby towns.
Pang said nearly 360 bodies had been found in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan and about 50 in four other southern provinces. The government’s official death toll stood only at 131 people and nearly 270 missing.
Another 21 people drowned on the central island of Negros, the PNRC said.
Hundreds were also unaccounted for, most of them from a coastal village in Iligan. Houses were swept into the sea by floodwaters while people were sleeping inside late on Friday.
The Philippines social welfare department said about 100,000 people were displaced and brought to nearly three dozen shelters in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro.
Army spokesman Colonel Leopoldo Galon said search and rescue operations would continue along the shorelines in Misamis Oriental and Lanao del Norte provinces.
“I can’t explain how these things happened, entire villages were swept to the sea by flash floods,” Galon said.
“I have not seen anything like this before. This could be worse than Ondoy,” he said, referring to a 2009 storm that inundated the capital, Manila, killing hundreds of people.
Television pictures showed bodies encased in mud, cars piled on top of each other and wrecked homes. Helicopters and boats searched the sea for survivors and victims.
“We ran for our lives when we heard a loud whistle blow and was followed by a big bang,” Michael Mabaylan, 38, a carpenter, told Reuters. He said his wife and five children were all safe.
Aid worker Crislyn Felisilda cited concern about children who had became separated from their families or lost their parents. “Many children are looking for their loved ones… (and children were) crying and staring into space.”
Rosal Agacac, a 40-year-old mother, was begging authorities to help find her two children after their shanty was swept to the sea. “Please President Noynoy, help me,” she cried, holding a candle at a spot where their house stood before the floods, referring to President Benigno Aquino.
Aquino met with cabinet members and disaster officials to assess conditions on the main southern island and ordered a review of disaster plans to avoid a repeat of the tragedy. He is due to inspect typhoon-hit areas after Christmas.
Rescue boats pulled at least 15 people from the sea, said another army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabang-bang.
Iligan City Mayor Lawrence Cruz said many people were caught by surprise when water rose one metre (three feet) high in less than an hour, forcing people onto roofs.
“Most of them were already sleeping when floodwaters entered their homes. This is the worst flooding our city has experienced in years.”
The national disaster agency said it could not estimate crop and property damage because emergency workers, including soldiers and police officers, were evacuating families and recovering casualties.
Six domestic flights run by Cebu Pacific were cancelled due to the rain and near-zero visibility in the southern and central Philippines. Ferry services were also halted, stranding hundreds of people.
An average of 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year.