MANILA (AFP) – – At least 73 people were killed and more than 330,000 others displaced after the heaviest rain in more than four decades plunged the Philippine capital into turmoil, officials said Sunday.
The nine-hour deluge across Manila on Saturday submerged houses, washed away shanties and turned roads into raging rivers, forcing terrified residents to seek refuge on top of homes or cars where they waited for more than 24 hours.
"I am calling on our countrymen… to please stay calm," President Gloria Arroyo said, as she set a deadline of nightfall on Sunday for the military and other rescuers to save those who remained stranded.
The downpour from tropical storm Ketsana left some areas of Manila under up to six metres (20 feet) of water and its ferocity shocked a country that is used to being battered by typhoons.
"This is the worst that I have seen," Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said of the extensive flooding.
Arroyo said more rain had fallen on Manila and surrounding areas than on New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina devastated the American city in 2005.
The confirmed death toll was 73, with 23 others still missing, Teodoro said on Sunday evening.
He added that more than 337,000 people in Manila and five outlying provinces were displaced, with nearly 60,000 people staying in evacuation centres.
And even though the rain eased on Sunday, rescuers said they feared the death toll may rise because receding flood waters could expose more bodies.
The frantic rescue efforts saw military helicopters and rubber boats fan out across the sprawling city of 12 million to pluck people off houses and car roofs.
The US military contributed a helicopter and six boats to the operations.
By Sunday night, more than 5,000 people had been saved, but many others were frantically waiting for help while battling thirst and hunger, meaning Arroyo’s deadline to rescue everyone during daylight was not met.
As dusk approached, factory worker Joel Taglunob, 28, said his auntie and her baby were still trapped on the second floor of their family home in eastern Manila’s Pasig city, one of the worst-hit areas.
"They have run out of food. She has a small child and they need food," Taglunob told AFP from a nearby street. He was planning to use a makeshift plastic flotation device to reach the house and deliver supplies.
Earlier in the day, panicked residents were seen in Pasig wading dangerously through neck-deep waters hoisting their children and belongings above their heads.
Philippine Red Cross chairwoman Gwendolyn Pang said rescuers were struggling to reach many areas, with highways rendered impassable.
"This has never happened before. Almost 80 percent of metropolitan Manila is underwater," Pang told AFP.
Adding to the chaos, telephone and power services were cut off in the worst-affected areas and remained patchy for other parts of Manila.
Some hospitals in the eastern part of the city had also been evacuated, while the international airport was closed during the worst of the storm on Saturday.
For the survivors, there were feelings of shock mixed with gratitude that they were still alive.
"We thought we were going to die," Rachelle Solis, 35, a banking executive who was with her two young children at a day-care centre when the floods hit.
"The current was strong and we were nearly swept away. We held onto a rope… for dear life. I kept thinking this couldn’t happen to me, not in Manila."
The government said that total rainfall for the deluge was 41.6 centimetres (16 inches), breaking the previous single-day record of 33.4 centimetres in July 1967.
The United States offered 50,000 dollars in aid to the Philippines’ Red Cross, while China donated 10,000 dollars.