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Toll exceeds 150 in Philippine mudslides

Searchers have dug up the bodies of entire families huddled together following weekend mudslides in the Philippines, where the death toll rose to at least 150 on Monday.
Local residents watch as rescuers dig up bodies of victims of a landslide in Liloan in central Philippines about 412 miles southeast of Manila on Sunday.Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

The death toll from devastating mudslides in the Philippines rose Tuesday to at least 151, with searchers digging out the bodies of entire families huddled together in buried village homes.

The bodies of a family of five — mother, father and children ages 5, 12 and 14 — were broadcast on television, lying in the mud and rain of their collapsed house in Liloan in the central province of Southern Leyte.

"We found families huddled together, other families were scattered," one rescuer told ABS-CBN TV on Monday.

Authorities blamed illegal logging for the landslides triggered by a week of pounding rains in provinces near the Pacific Ocean. Sporadic rains and strong waves hampered recovery efforts.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said most of the affected areas were near over-logged hills and mountains.

Arroyo asked U.S. Ambassador Richard Ricciardone for military helicopters to help with the rescue effort, but U.S. forces in Okinawa, Japan — where Arroyo said the helicopters would come from — said Monday they had not heard of any rescue plans.

Ferry sinks
In a separate disaster, some 20 people were rescued from a ferry that sank in rough seas southwest of Manila, the Philippine navy and coast guard said Tuesday. The 63-ton ferry, with 69 passengers and six crew aboard, sank Sunday and dozens of people were still missing.

At least 133 of the mudslide victims resided in Southern Leyte, Vice Governor Eva Tomol told The Associated Press. Casualty figures were expected to increase because rescue teams still have not reached all the devastated villages.

The National Disaster Coordinating Council also reported 14 people killed in landslides and four people drowned in floodwaters in the northeastern part of the main southern island of Mindanao, near Leyte, over the weekend. About 20,000 people were evacuated.

In the mountainside village of Punta, where 77 of the 360 residents were killed and another 23 were missing, bodies were piled near the shore as mechanical diggers searched for victims buried in the mud that hit the area late Friday and Saturday.

More than half of the village’s 83 houses were destroyed or buried.

Fisherman Marciano Maquinano said he lost his wife, three children and six other relatives. He said he was fishing Friday night, unaware of the tragedy.

"I was out at sea and when I returned, it was over," he said.

His eyes bloodshot from weeping, he lit candles and kneeled beside makeshift plywood coffins bearing the names of his wife and children scrawled in white chalk.

Punta residents described hearing what sounded like a "crack of thunder" seconds before mud cascaded down on their village. From the air, a large chunk of a hill appeared to have been gnawed off.

The debris — uprooted coconut trees with their fruits still hanging — pushed everything in its path out to the sea. Several bodies were found floating some 80 miles away.

Leyte Gov. Rosette Lerias said an 89-year-old man and 14-year-old girl were rescued from the mud. Both apparently survived in an air pocket.

Several villages on Leyte island were cut off. For a second day, huge waves forced the governor’s boat to turn back from Pinut-an in San Ricardo town.

A staff member who swam part of the way to shore said only the cross on top of a church steeple in Pinut-an was visible above the mud.

21 inches of rain in a day
Environment Secretary Elisea Gozun said forests were replaced in the 1920s and 1930s by coconut plantations, and those trees do not hold the soil as well as deep-rooted trees.

The weather bureau said Friday’s rainfall was 21.89 inches — more than the average for all of December.

Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the weather was improving, at least temporarily, and two air force helicopters were flying over the disaster area. But weather forecasters warned of more rain in the coming days.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was distressed by the disaster and sent his condolences, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Monday in New York. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has provided an emergency grant of $50,000, he said.

"The United Nations stands ready to assist those affected by the tragedy," Eckhard said.