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Nearly 600 dead and missing in Philippines storm – 4thlead, Wrap

ILIGAN, December 17, 2011 (AFP) – Tropical storm Washi whipped the southern Philippines, unleashing huge floods on sleeping communities that killed almost 200 people and left nearly 400 missing, officials said Saturday.About 20,000 soldiers mobilised in a huge rescue and relief operation across the stricken north coast of the island of Mindanao, said Benito Ramos, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.”Most of them were asleep as floodwaters rushed down at 2:30am (1830 GMT Friday),” Ramos told reporters in Manila, referring to the devastation across the major southern ports of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.”They were warned (about the approaching storm), but they did not go into preemptive evacuation.”He said Mindanao was rarely visited by storms, in a country where about 20 major storms strike annually, with most hitting Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the Southeast Asian archipelago.”We expect huge damage, especially on agriculture,” Ramos said.

Iligan mayor Lawrence Cruz described rampaging floodwaters from swollen rivers that swamped up to a quarter of the land area of the city of 100,000.

“It’s the worst flood in the history of our city,” Cruz told GMA television. “It happened so fast, at a time when people were fast asleep.”

The station showed dramatic pictures of a family escaping out of the window of their home in the town as the floods rose, and rescue workers in orange vests shepherding survivors to safety above chest-deep waters.

Marlyn Manos, an Iligan resident, recounted how she and her children watched in terror from their rooftop as the floodwaters swallowed up the neighbourhood.

“All the small houses behind ours were destroyed, and many of my neighbours are missing,” she said.

The region’s military spokesmen said 97 bodies were recovered in Cagayan de Oro, with another 75 corpses found in Iligan.

Fifteen people who were swept out to sea were rescued off Iligan but another 250 remained unaccounted for in the town, they said, with 125 more missing in Cagayan de Oro, a city of half a million people.

Three people also drowned in the town of Polanco and five were killed in a landslide in mountains near the town of Monkayo, Ramos said.

After hitting the southern ports, Washi brushed past the central island of Negros, unleashing more floods that killed 18 people there, he added.

The western island of Palawan is expected to be hit on Saturday night with slightly weakened peak winds of 65 miles (46.4 miles) after Washi crosses the Sulu Sea, the state weather service said.

Local tourism officer Pat Noel told AFP that rainwater from the nearby mountains began rising in Iligan shortly before midnight.

As they gathered strength and momentum they swept houses made of light materials and their inhabitants along the riverbanks.

“Many of them told me they sought refuge on their rooftops,” he said after joining the first wave of rescuers at a hamlet near the mouth of the Mandulog river at daybreak.

Two of the three rivers that flow into the Iligan port had overflowed, he added, and a popular radio commentator was among those killed.

Eric Carillo, an Iligan resident, told GMA his family, who emerged alive from the floods, did not seek higher ground even though the rain was heavy.

“I’ve been around for 47 years and this was the worst flooding I have ever experienced,” he added.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said the flooding affected more than 22,000 families, but government officials could not give the total number of people who had lost their homes.

President Benigno Aquino has ordered 10 evacuation centres to be put up in the affected areas of Mindanao, his spokeswoman Abigail Valte said on government radio.

© 1994-2011 Agence France-Presse

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