Philippine Death Toll Hits 1,000

More than a thousand people are dead or missing after flash floods that ravaged the southern Philippines, the government said Tuesday as cities prepared for mass burials.

Some 957 people have been killed and 49 others are missing after tropical storm Washi lashed the southern island of Mindanao and surrounding areas over the weekend, said civil defence chief Benito Ramos.

Washi brought heavy rains that swelled rivers, unleashing flash floods and landslides that struck in the dead of night and swept away shantytowns built near river mouths.

The toll rose sharply as the bodies of people who were swept out to sea were recovered.

“They were underwater for the first three days but now, in their state of decomposition, they are bloated and floating to the surface,” Ramos told AFP.

A British national was among those killed by the storm, Britain’s Foreign Office said.

President Benigno Aquino flew to Mindanao on Tuesday to survey the devastation by air, coordinate the relief effort, and express his condolences to the victims’ relatives, aides said.

Aquino said the impoverished nation of 94 million people was now in a “state of calamity”, his spokesman Ricky Carandang told reporters.

The southern port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan were the worst affected with 579 and 279 fatalities respectively, but other areas were also hit and needed immediate aid from the national government, Carandang said.

Authorities in both cities are are preparing mass burials of unidentified bodies to address health concerns as well as the overpowering stench from huge numbers of dead that have overwhelmed mortuaries.

With dead bodies lying everywhere, there was controversy over Cagayan de Oro authorities’ decision to bring at least 20 unclaimed cadavers to a nearby landfill for temporary storage.

Pictures of the bodies, kept under a tent just a few metres (yards) away from the dump where scavengers picked through piles of garbage for items to salvage, caused outrage as they circulated on social networking sites.

“Looking for your mother, father, wife, husband, daughter, son, brother, sister who have been missing since Saturday?s flash floods? Go to the city?s dumpsite,” Mindanews, a Mindanao-based news outfit, said on its website.

“That?s where they dumped your loved ones for you to identify and claim.”

Christian Caballes, the chief medical-legal officer of Cagayan de Oro, said a government team was collecting fingerprints and DNA samples from the victims’ bodies which are to be interred in mass graves elsewhere.

“This is just temporary,” Caballes told AFP.

The disaster area, located about 800 kilometres (500 miles) from the capital Manila, is normally bypassed by typhoons that ravage other parts of the far-flung Philippine archipelago every year.

As a result, many residents were caught by surprise when floods suddenly hit their homes as they slept.

More than 284,000 people have been displaced by the storm with over 42,000 huddled in crowded, makeshift government evacuation centres, the the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said.

Authorities likened the impact of tropical storm Washi to Ketsana, one of the country’s most devastating storms which dumped huge amounts of rain on Manila and other parts of the country in 2009, killing 464 people.

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