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Nearly 1,000 dead after Philippines typhoon, disaster agency reports

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Nearly 1,000 were killed when flash floods and landslides caused by Typhoon Washi swept through riverside and coastal villages in the southern Philippines late last week, the national disaster agency said on Tuesday.

The agency said 957 were killed and 49 were missing, with most of the casualties coming from the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. The previous death toll was 650.

Authorities in the two cities, worst-hit by water, mud and logs swept down mountains, are struggling to prevent disease from spreading in crowded evacuation centers and have started digging mass graves to bury decomposing bodies.

President Benigno Aquino will visit the two cities later on Tuesday. The government said more than 338,000 people were affected by the disaster.

With funeral parlors overwhelmed, authorities in a flood-stricken southern Philippine city on Monday organized the first mass burial of some of nearly 700 people who were swept to their deaths in one of worst calamities to strike the region in decades.

Estimates of the staggering death toll from Friday night's disaster, spawned by a tropical storm, spiked, have varied widely, though the latest spike u nderscored the difficulty in accounting for people who could be buried in the mud and debris littering much of the area or could be alive but lost in crowded evacuation centers or elsewhere.

"We lost count of how many are missing," Benito Ramos, head of the government's Office of Civil Defense, admitted earlier on Monday.

Disaster agencies delivered body bags, food, water, and medicine to crowded evacuation centers throughout the region.

How to bury the dead
Officials in Iligan said they would bury about 80 bodies at a public cemetery on Monday — but in individual plots and tombs. Workers were rushing to construct tombs.

"Definitely, we are not burying them in mass graves. That is not allowed any more," Levi Villarin, city health officer, told Reuters.

However, in Cagayan de Oro, further east along Mindanao's north coast, officials moved hundreds of unclaimed bodies to a sanitary landfill for a mass burial after residents complained of the stench.

"They (local officials) have to bury these decomposing bodies because they could no longer be recognized and they're avoiding a potential outbreak of disease," Ramos said.

Vicente Emano, mayor of Cagayan de Oro, said officials were planning to put some bodies into refrigerated trucks until law enforcement agencies identified the dead through fingerprints and DNA tests.

The cities are running out of room at evacuation centers and of coffins. The Health department was sending 600 body bags and medicines to the affected areas, Social Work Secretary Dinky Soliman said.

The Maoist-led Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) rebels, who have battled government forces for 40 years, said they had declared a six-day unilateral Christmas truce to help those affected by the floods. The government last week announced a 19-day truce.

Search continues
The government said nearly 143,000 people were affected by the flash floods and landslides, of which 45,000 people were staying in evacuation centers. The rest stayed with relatives.

Save the Children, a London-based non-governmental organization, estimated more than half of those affected were children.

A Reuters photographer saw three white wooden coffins of children, who were aged 7 to 10, lined up at a church in Iligan converted into an evacuation center.

Ramos, the head of the national disaster agency, said six helicopters and two dozen boats were dispatched to search for survivors and drowning victims.

"From the helicopter, we saw four major river systems, all houses along the riverbanks were totally destroyed," he said.

Some bodies were found on the shore of Camiguin island, 47 miles from Cagayan de Oro.

Rescuers pulled the bodies of at least 13 people from a two-story concrete house in Iligan flattened by huge logs that fell from the mountains. They feared more bodies were under the debris as many residents had sought safety there, thinking the house would withstand the flash floods.

Disaster officials said the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had started a damage and needs assessment survey to help the government and aid agencies respond to the disaster.

Foreign governments have sent condolences and promised to donate food and other relief supplies.

The agriculture department said about 8.1 million pesos ($184,000) in mostly rice and corn crops were lost.

Mindanao island, the southernmost in the Philippines, is a mineral-rich region not normally in the path of the average 20 typhoons that hit the Southeast Asian country each year.

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