MANILA, PHILIPPINES – Rescuers struggled through mud and pounding rain Friday to clear mountain roads and retrieve more than 160 bodies from dozens of landslides that buried villages and cut off towns in the rain-soaked northern Philippines.
The latest calamity brought the death toll to more than 450 from the Philippines’ worst flooding in 40 years after back-to-back storms started pounding the country’s north on Sept. 26.
More than 160 people were killed in landslides in Benguet and Mountain Province along the Cordillera mountain range, about 200 kilometres north of Manila, officials in the two provinces said.
The fatalities included 120 in Benguet, Gov. Nestor Fongwan said, while 23 died in Mountain Province, according to Gov. Max Dalog. Another 25 people died in Baguio, city relief administrator Peter Fianza said.
Landslides blocked the roads to the mountain city of Baguio in the heart of the Cordillera region. The only way to reach the isolated, mountain communities was by foot, and military helicopters could not fly yet because of the storms, said Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres, spokesman for the government’s disaster relief agency.
"We are focused on rescue at this time," he said. "It is raining nonstop in the Cordilleras."
About 100 landslides have struck the region since the weekend, said Rex Manuel, another relief official.
Seventeen bodies have been recovered so far from Kibungan village in Benguet’s La Trinidad township, which was almost entirely buried in mud and debris late Thursday, Manuel said. Up to 40 villagers were estimated to have died, while more than 100 were moved to safety, he said.
Rescuers in the hillside villages used pulleys to transport the dead they retrieved from a pile of rubble and mud.
TV footage showed the bodies arriving in black bags in a hall in Baguio, where relatives wept after recognizing their loved ones.
"There was a sudden rumble above us, and then the houses at the bottom were gone, including them," said Melody Coronel, pointing to the relatives she found among the dead.
In Buyagan village, also in La Trinidad, only three out of about 100 houses remained visible after Thursday night’s landslide buried most structures there. Some 50 residents were saved, but it was not clear how many died, Manuel said.
In neighbouring Mountain Province’s Tadian township, at least 28 people were reported missing and several bodies were recovered after the side of a mountain collapsed.
Another landslide hit a second village in Tadian early Friday. No immediate casualty reports were available.
Forecasters said Tropical Depression Parma was still lingering off the northeastern coast and dumped rain overnight. It hit land more than a week ago, the second major storm to hit the country in two weeks.
Thousands of residents of coastal Pangasinan province, about 170 kilometres north of Manila, were rescued from rooftops after dams released excess water from recent heavy rains, inundating 30 out of 46 towns along the Agno River.
"There was really heavy rain, so water had to be released from the dam, otherwise it would have been more dangerous," said the government’s chief forecaster Nathaniel Cruz. "Even our office was flooded and our staff had to move to the rooftop. It’s near the river that they were monitoring."
Heavy army trucks had difficulty penetrating the area, and provincial Vice Gov. Marlyn Primicias appealed for helicopters and boats to move people out of danger.
In Rosales, the biggest mall in town was flooded by neck-deep waters that sent appliances floating and smashing through glass panels. Some residents were seen carrying the goods away.
The government’s disaster relief agency said it had requested that the U.S. Embassy redeploy hundreds of American troops from the massive cleanup in and around the capital, Manila, to the flood-hit areas in the north.
Two U.S. Navy ships were positioning in the Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan to provide helicopters and rubber boats for the rescue mission in the province, said U.S. Marine Capt. Jorge Escatell.