MANILA, Philippines (Dec 20, 2011) - Three days after tropical storm Sendong triggered deadly flash floods in Northern Mindanao and Southern Visayas, death toll rises to 927 based on the latest figure released by Benito Ramos, head of the Office of the Civil Defense (OSG). as rescuers retrieve more bodies amid worsening working condition aggravated by the stench of decaying flesh.
While there is reasonable certainty in count of the dead, there is wide disparity in the reported number of those who are still missing. The OSG figure, which is considered official, puts the number at 82. On the other hand, the Philippine Red Cross has a higher estimate at 800.
Mass burials has been started as funeral parlors are stretched beyond capacity and have started rejecting more bodies.
Sunny weather now prevails over the disaster areas as the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) reported that storm “Sendong” had left the Philippine area of responsibility and the good weather would prevail in the next five days.
Casualties could go as high as a thousand in what could be the strongest storm to hit Mindanao since 1980, according to Science Secretary Mario Montejo.
Philippine Red Cross (PRC) secretary-general Gwendolyn Pang said most of the fatalities were children and women.
“It’s overwhelming. We didn’t expect these many dead,” said National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) chief Benito Ramos.
Brig. Gen. Roland Amerille, deputy commander of the 1st Infantry Division and ground commander of the ongoing search and retrieval operations in Iligan City, reported yesterday that troops have recovered 279 bodies since Sunday.
Maj. Julio Eugenio Osias IV, spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division, citing latest updates from the city disaster official report in the flood-stricken Cagayan de Oro, said 336 bodies have been recovered by combined military and police search teams.
The other fatalities as reported by the NDRRMC came from Bukidnon with 17 dead, five from Mt. Diwalwal, Compostela Valley, one in Surigao del Sur, four from Lanao del Sur, 38 in Negros Oriental, one in Cebu and three from Zamboanga del Norte.
“More dead bodies have been recovered in Cagayan de Oro City yesterday. The latest recoveries include those of two pregnant women with their unborn babies,” Osias said.
In nearby Iligan, the number of casualties is expected to mount as rescue and recovery teams from the Army and police, as well as the Philippine Navy, are still searching for 200 individuals from the flood-devastated villages, according to Amerille.
The NDRRMC’s unofficial figures listed 632 dead, 16 injured, 280 missing and 432 rescued.
Sendong also displaced 24,680 families in 13 provinces of Western, Central Visayas, Western Mindanao, Northern Mindanao, Compostela, Caraga and Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARRM).
Glaiza Escullar, PAGASA weather forecaster, said no tropical cyclone is expected to enter the country in the next five days.
However, she said most parts of the country will experience partly cloudy skies with isolated rains and thunderstorms in the afternoon or evening.
Cagayan de Oro, one of the hardest-hit areas, will also experience good weather in the next days.
Montejo said the waterways were not able to handle the heavy rains brought by the storm.
PAGASA said Sendong dumped a total of 181 millimeters of rain in Cagayan de Oro in 24 hours, surpassing the average 99.9 mm rainfall in the city for the month of December.
The Navy rescued eight individuals among the hundreds who were swept away by the rampaging flood, who survived after hanging on to the debris.
Search and rescue operations are still underway for 230 more who were declared missing and believed to have been swept out to sea, according to Lt. Senior Grade Arnold Simbajon, acting commanding officer of the Philippine Navy operating the patrol gunboat that spearheaded the search.
Simbajon said the rescued survivors had been drifting for two days when spotted separately hanging on to debris in Lugait Point, seven nautical miles or about 60 kilometers off Iligan.
He said four others in the same predicament were already dead.
Simbajon said the survivors appeared to have come from different places and didn’t know each other.
He said the survivors claimed they had lost their respective families in the rampaging flood.
The victims were immediately provided food and turned over to the Coast Guard and the local government in Iligan for immediate attention.
Simbajon said the search and recovery continued even as they have widened the area to as far as Initaw Point in Misamis Oriental covering about 10 nautical miles.
“Hopefully, we can still find more survivors because there were still 230 missing,” he said.
Iligan Mayor Lawrence Cruz welcomed the news and expressed hope of finding more survivors.
Cruz said some 50 cadavers, most of them unclaimed, will be buried in a mass grave. He said the remains will be individually buried, wrapped in plastic bags as they ran out of coffins, in temporary graves in public cemetery and will be exhumed for proper burial in the coming days.
Policeman among casualties
Among the fatalities in the floods was a policeman involved in the relief and rescue operations in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, according to Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Nicanor Bartolome.
Bartolome said SPO1 Charlon Edrote of Cagayan de Oro died while Inspector Charlito Penaliar of the PNP-Regional Public Safety Battalion in Northern Mindanao and PO2 Sandy Labadan of the Iligan City Police remain missing after they were swept away by strong waves during rescue operations.
The PNP chief said SPO2 Roque Ballestoy, who was reported to be swept away by flashfloods, was later found taking part in retrieval operations in Cagayan de Oro.
Bartolome sent a 300-man augmentation force from PNP Northern Mindanao and Caraga Police Regional Office and Special Action Force and Maritime Group.
He added that the augmentation force has 10 days’ supply so they can stay in the area before they report back to their respective regions.
“The death of a policeman should not dampen the spirit of our policemen, because risk and danger is part of our duties and we are prepared for these eventualities,” he said, reminding policemen to be careful while helping others.
“The PNP will be providing financial assistance and reward. We will be working for the posthumous promotion for Edrote. We hope that those who are missing will be recovered safe,” Bartolome added.
Red Cross expects higher casualties
PRC chairman Richard Gordon said they expect a bigger number of casualties, as many villages remain isolated and unreached by PRC disaster response.
“Wounded persons need anti-tetanus drugs, so we are bringing supplies of food and medicine for over 4,000 people as well as non-food items like blankets, mosquito nets and immediate supplies,” Gordon said in a live interview with the BBC.
He said Mindanao is usually not a typhoon-prone area that is why most residents were caught unprepared.
“Those hardest hit were Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and Bukidnon, areas that normally are not really hit by typhoons, they have spray of rain regularly in the morning and goes out in the evening or vice versa but this is the first time in a long, long time that they were hit very badly by a major storm,” said Gordon.
NBI tapped to identify victims
Meanwhile, a 15-man forensic team from the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was sent yesterday afternoon by the bureau to help identify, through autopsy, more than 200 bodies recovered.
NBI Deputy Director for Technical Services lawyer Reynaldo Esmeralda said Dr. Wilfredo Tierra, of the NBI Medico Legal Division, heads the 15-man team composed of doctors, med-techs, nurses, chemists, photographers and fingerprint technicians. (From Philstar.com)