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Mindanao counts 436 dead, hundreds missing as Sendong moves to Palawan

MANILA, Philippines (3AM, Dec 18, 2011) - Tropical storm Sendong (Washi), while not reaching typhoon status, flooded vast areas in Mindanao leaving 446 dead and 200 still missing in the twin port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City.

A massive rescue effort involving 20,000 soldiers and volunteers is ongoing after Sendong to Sulu Sea towards the western island of Palawan.

The southern Philippine island of Mindanao is rarely visited by tropical storms. Although an average of 20 major storms hit the country yearly, most of these batter the island of Luzon where preemptive evacuation has become a routine precaution at the earliest sign of coming weather disturbance.

Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City are now just starting to learn their lessons as the residents were caught off-guard and complacent when Sendong came. No preventive evacuation was implemented.

"It's the worst flood in the history of our city," said Mayor Lawrence Cruz of Iligan City, adding that the rampaging water came at the time when people were fast asleep.

"Most of them were asleep as floodwaters rushed down at 2:30am (1830 GMT Friday)," Benito Ramos, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. said of the victims.

"They were warned (about the approaching storm), but they did not go into preemptive evacuation," Ramos added.

Iligan tourism officer Pat Noel said waters began rising shortly before midnight as people slept, sweeping 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 daybreak.

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

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 streets.

Rescuers in boats rushed offshore to save people swept out to sea. In Misamis Oriental province, 60 people were plucked from the ocean off El Salvador city, about 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.

Cruz said the coast guard and other rescuers were scouring the waters off Iligan for survivors or bodies that may have been swept away.

Tropical Storm Washi dumped on Mindanao more than a month of average rains in just 12 hours.

It quickly cut across the region overnight and headed for Palawan province southwest of Manila on Saturday night.

Forecaster Leny Ruiz said that the 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, said he already mobilized emergency crews but local officials have not ordered an evacuation yet because the weather was still fine.

Philippine Red Cross Secretary General Gwen Pang told The Associated Press that the latest toll was based on a body count in funeral parlors. She said that 215 died in Cagayan de Oro and 144 in nearby Iligan, and the rest in several other southern and central provinces.

Many of the bodies in parlors were unclaimed, indicating that entire families had perished, Pang said.

Other affected areas on Mindanao included Bukidnon province, where 47 people died, while nine others people were killed elsewhere on the island, Pang said.

Twenty-five people meanwhile drowned on the island of Negros, the provincial civil defence office told AFP.

Pang said 162 people were still missing in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, while a Negros official said 19 people were counted as missing.

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.

Meanwhile, Sendong has slightly strengthened as it traverses Sulu Seaas towards the island of Palawan. It now packs a centerwind of 100 kilometers per hour (kph) with gustiness up to 130 kph as it moves West Northwest at 22 kph and is expected to hit land very close to Puerto Princesa City early today (2-3 AM). (From