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Pope on Christmas Eve prays for Philippines after deadly tropical storm, mall fire

by Erik Ortiz and Reuters /
Residents evacuate to a safer place in Kabacan in the Philippines on Dec. 23, 2017, after Tropical Storm Tembin dumped torrential rains across the island.Ferdinandh Cabrera / AFP - Getty Images

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Pope Francis on Sunday said he was praying for the Philippines after one of its islands was devastated by floods and landslides, killing roughly 200 people, and a separate shopping mall fire likely claimed about three dozen lives.

Francis noted that the storm hitting the Mindanao region "has caused numerous victims and much destruction" as he greeted people in St. Peter's Square, hours before he was set to celebrate Christmas Eve vigil Mass.

"Let's pray for these people," he urged to those in the square.

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Rescuers continued the search Sunday for survivors of Tropical Storm Tembin, which unleashed devastation late Friday as it left thousands of people homeless, most of whom apparently ignored warnings to move to safety.

Misery in the largely Christian Philippines was compounded by the death of at least 37 people in a shopping mall fire, officials said on Christmas Eve.

Related: Rescuers search for Philippine storm victims as death toll rises to 200

The Philippines is battered by about 20 typhoons a year and warnings are routinely issued, but the level of destruction wreaked by this tropical storm — with winds of up to 75 mph, came as a surprise.

"It happened very fast, the flood waters quickly rose filling our house," farmer Felipe Ybarsabal, 65, told Reuters by telephone, saying he and his family had to run to higher ground.

"We weren't able to save anything from the house. There was no help from anyone because it was so fast," he added. "Everything was two to three meters under water in less than an hour."

 Residents evacuate to a safer place in Kabacan in the Philippines on Dec. 23, 2017, after Tropical Storm Tembin dumped torrential rains across the island. Ferdinandh Cabrera / AFP - Getty Images

Police and emergency officials said they expected the death toll to rise with more fatalities likely to be discovered in remote farm communities and coastal areas, as rescuers reached them and restored communication and power links.

Officials said 159 people were listed as missing while about 70,000 had been forced from their homes.

The storm was moving west on Sunday, over some outlying Philippine islands and the South China Sea toward southern Vietnam, at a speed of about 12 mph.

The southern region of the Philippines was hit by another disaster on the weekend when fire swept through a shopping mall in the city of Davao, killing mostly workers at a call center, city government officials said.

The vice mayor of Davao, Paolo Duterte, said the chance of survival for any of the 37 people missing at the NCCC Mall was "zero."

 A firefighter stands in front of a burning shopping mall in Davao City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on Dec. 23, 2017. Manman Dejeto / AFP - Getty Images

On Christmas Eve, Mayor Duterte's father, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, visited relatives of the victims and cried upon hearing the news that all were feared dead, according to local reports.

The cause of Saturday's fire was not known, but an investigation was being launched as authorities searched for the bodies of the victims.

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