MANILA, Dec 24, (AFP): At least 200 people have been killed and scores are missing in the southern Philippines after a tropical storm triggered severe flooding and landslides that also wrecked Christmas for tens of thousands of survivors.
Tropical Storm Tembin lashed Mindanao island, home to 20 million people, on Friday with strong gusts and torrential rain, wiping out at least one mountain village and prompting a massive rescue operation. Police said 144 people remained missing while more than 40,000 had fl ed their homes to evacuation camps as Tembin roared out into the South China Sea early Sunday.
A total of 70,000 have been displaced or otherwise affected by the storm according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which warned that continued heavy rain could hamper the search for survivors. “People left everything behind when they fled for their lives,” the IFRC’s Philippines operations and programmes manager Patrick Elliott said in a statement. The archipelago nation is pummelled by major storms every year, many of them deadly.
Mindanao tends to be less affected and officials said this may have caused many to ignore warnings to move to safer ground. Footage showed vast tracts of land on the island submerged by brown water, often waist-deep, with streets turning into rivers. Local police said 135 people were killed and 72 missing in the northern section of Mindanao, while 47 were dead and 72 missing in the impoverished Zamboanga peninsula on its western side.
Another 18 people perished in the province of Lanao del Sur in the centre of the island. One of the places hit hardest was the mountain village of Dalama, which was virtually wiped off the map as rampaging floodwaters carried away 103 houses.
Footage on ABS-CBN showed houses there destroyed or engulfed by floodwaters and rescuers retrieving the body of a girl buried in a landslide. Police, soldiers and volunteers used shovels and their bare hands to dig through mud and debris in their search for survivors. “The flood was already close and the people were not able to get out from their homes,” Armando Sangcopan, an elderly male survivor, told the station.
“We called for forced evacuation, preemptive evacuation in certain areas. We are saddened by the (large) numbers of casualties,” Romina Marasigan, spokeswoman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council told reporters in Manila. In the town of Kabasalan in Zamboanga, dozens of families huddled in the homes of neighbours on Christmas Eve, two days after fl oods carried off 40 houses, killing three people with one other missing, said local civil defence chief Junalyn Maravillo.
“This is a disaster. They don’t think about Christmas. All they think about is what they will eat for today,” she told AFP. The storm swept into the South China Sea before dawn Sunday after hitting the western tourist island of Palawan overnight Saturday, the state weather service said. “So far zero casualties, but we have accounts of some people missing,” Palawan civil defence chief Zaldy Ablana told DZMM radio on Sunday. But in a Palawan fishing village, a 53-year-old man was killed by a crocodile while securing his boat in a river.
Tembin struck less than a week after Tropical Storm Kai-Tak left scores dead and more than 20 missing in the central Philippines, straining the disaster-prone nation’s already stretched resources. The deadliest typhoon to hit the country is still Haiyan, which killed thousands and destroyed entire towns in heavily populated areas of the central Philippines in November 2013. Meanwhile, at least 37 people, including call centre staff from an American firm, are believed to have perished in a fire that tore through a shopping mall in the southern Philippine city of Davao, local authorities said on Sunday.
President Rodrigo Duterte, himself a Davao native, visited distraught relatives outside the burning building overnight but told them there was “zero” chance their loved ones had survived, witnesses told AFP. Firemen found one body as the blaze was brought under control Sunday, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, told reporters.
Firemen have concluded that all those trapped in the building are dead, she said, adding: “They assessed that no one would survive in that heat and with that thick, black smoke.” The deadly fire adds fresh misery for the mainly Catholic Philippines at Christmas as the death toll from a tropical storm that hit the south on Friday topped 200 and displaced tens of thousands of others.
The blaze started at the four-storey NCCC Mall on Saturday morning sending thick plumes of black smoke billowing into the sky over Davao. With low wages but strong English language skills, the Philippines is a popular destination for international companies to set up customer call centres. The mall’s top floor housed a 24-hour call centre for US multinational SSI, a market research company. Jimmy Quimsing, a retired seaman, was one of the relatives desperately waiting for news.
His 25-year-old son Jim Benedict worked at the call centre and had not been in contact since the fire broke out. Quimsing said he spoke to President Duterte and had been told to prepare for the worst. “He told us zero, no one would survive under these circumstances,” he told AFP. Duterte’s special assistant Christopher Go confirmed the bulk of the conversation to AFP.
Paolo Duterte, the president’s son and the vice mayor of Davao, also wrote on Facebook that fire officials had told him there was “zero” chance of anyone trapped surviving the blaze. In a statement on its local Facebook page SSI Philippines Davao said it would set up a “command centre” for relatives of those missing.
“Please continue to pray for everyone’s safety,” the firm added. Davao fire marshal Honeyfritz Alagano said the blaze may have started with a spark on the third fl oor of the mall, which had a furniture section. “One of our firemen here has a kid who is an (call centre) agent in there. He told us some of them went to collect their stuff at their lockers and were trapped,” Alagano told AFP.