MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Pounding rain from a tropical storm swelled rivers and sent walls of water rushing through the southern Philippines while people were asleep, killing more than 200 with scores missing, officials said Saturday.
Some of the dead were swept out to sea from the worst-hit coastal cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in the Mindanao region, which is unaccustomed to the typhoons that are common elsewhere in the archipelago nation.
Cagayan de Oro city councilor Alvin Bacal said 107 people had died in the flooding in his city alone, citing military figures.
In Iligan, 79 bodies were recovered in the city after more than 12 hours of continuous rain from Tropical Storm Washi overflowed a river and sent muddy floodwaters cascading from nearby mountains, Mayor Lawrence Cruz said. About 250 people are unaccounted for in Iligan, said military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang.
A man in Cagayan de Oro said he heard a cry for help around 10 p.m. while the floodwaters were still low.
“Suddenly, there was a very strong rush of water,” the man, who was not identified, told a local TV station.
Ayi Hernandez, a former congressman, said he and his family were resting in their home late Friday when they heard a loud “swooshing sound” and water quickly rose ankle deep inside his home. He decided to evacuate to a neighbor’s two-story house.
“It was a good thing because in less than an hour the water rose to about 11 feet (3.3 meters),” the height of the ceiling of his house, he said.
Civil defense administrator Benito Ramos said 18 drowned in floodwaters in central Negros Oriental province, whose southern tip was nipped by the eye of the storm later Saturday.
The floodwaters were waist-high in some neighborhoods that do not usually experience flooding. Scores of residents escaped the floods by climbing onto the roofs of their homes, Cruz said.
Those missing included prominent radio broadcaster Enie Alsonado, who was swept away while trying to save his neighbors, Cruz said.
Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro said that about 20,000 residents of the city had been affected and that evacuees were packed in temporary shelters.
Television footage showed muddy water rushing in the streets, sweeping away all sorts of debris. Thick layers of mud coated streets where the waters had subsided. One car was shown to have been carried over a concrete fence.
Authorities recovered bodies from the mud after the water subsided. Parts of concrete walls and roofs, toppled vehicles and other debris littered the muddy streets.
Rescuers in boats rushed offshore to save people swept out to sea by the raging floodwaters. In Misamis Oriental province, 60 people were plucked from the ocean off El Salvador city, about 6 miles (10 kilometers) northwest of Cagayan de Oro, said disaster official Teddy Sabuga-a.
About 120 more were rescued off Opol township, closer to the city, he added.
He said an island in the middle of the Cagayan de Oro river was inundated, but there were no immediate reports of casualties or people missing.
Cruz said the coast guard and other rescuers were scouring the waters off his coastal city for survivors or bodies that may have been swept to the sea.
An 80-year-old woman drowned after being trapped in the first floor of her flooded home in Zamboanga del Norte province. A 30-year-old man and a 10-year-old boy also drowned, said provincial disaster officer Dennis Tenorio.
Washi, the 19th storm to hit the Philippines this year, came ashore in eastern Mindanao and blanketed the region with thick rain clouds 250 miles (400 kilometers) in diameter.
It quickly cut across the region overnight and was over the Sulu Sea by midmorning Saturday. It was then headed for Palawan province southwest of Manila and was expected to cross the narrow province before dawn Sunday, said forecaster Leny Ruiz.
Ruiz said the weather bureau’s records show that storms that follow Washi’s track come only once in about 12 years.
Lucilo Bayron, vice mayor of Puerto Princesa in Palawan, told ABS-CBN television he has already mobilized emergency crews but local officials have not ordered an evacuation “because it’s not raining and the weather is still fine here.”
Ramos, a former army general, said by law two army divisions — about 20,000 men — in Mindanao and part of the central Philippines are supposed to help with rescue and relief work, backed up by hundreds of local police, reservists, coast guard officers and civilian volunteers. However, he could not give an estimate of how many are actually involved.
Col. Leopoldo Galon, military spokesman for the eastern section of Mindanao, said 420 soldiers have been assigned for disaster duties. There was no immediate comment from the western Mindanao military spokesman.
Ramos said the high casualties in Mindanao could be attributed “partly to the complacency of people because they are not in the usual path of storms” despite four days of warnings by officials of an approaching storm.
He also said heavy rains fell on nearby Bukidnon province’s vast pineapple plantations, which sit on a plateau that drains rainfall through a river system that runs through Cagayan de Oro. Mountains near Iligan were denuded, also causing the flash floods and mud flows that swamped the city, he said.
Storms and typhoons that normally pass through the northern and central Philippines are pushed farther south of the country by cold winds during the northern hemisphere’s winter season late in the year.
Back-to-back typhoons in September left more than 100 people dead in the northern Philippines.
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski contributed to this report.
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