AS A STORM that killed more than 650 in the southern Philippines raged outside the store where she works, Amor Limbago worriedly called home to check on her parents, but their cellphones just kept ringing and later went dead.
Limbago, 21, rushed home as soon as the flash floods receded and confirmed her worst fear: Her parents and seven other relatives were gone, swept away from their hut by the river. They had eagerly planned a small Christmas dinner in that hut just days earlier.
“I returned and saw that our house was completely gone,” a weeping Limbago told The Associated Press from Cagayan de Oro city. “There was nothing but mud all over and knee-deep floodwaters.”
Tropical Storm Washi blew away Sunday after devastating a wide swath of the mountainous region on Mindanao island, which is unaccustomed to major storms.
Most of the victims were asleep Friday night when flash floods cascaded down mountain slopes with logs and uprooted trees, swelling rivers and killing at least 652 people. The late-season tropical storm turned the worst-hit coastal cities of Cagayan de Oro and nearby Iligan into muddy wastelands filled with overturned cars and broken trees.
Most of the dead were children and women, Philippine Red Cross Secretary General Gwendolyn Pang said. At least 808 others were still missing, mostly in the two cities, she said.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and top military officials flew to Cagayan de Oro and Iligan to help oversee search-and-rescue efforts and deal with thousands of displaced villagers. Among the items urgently needed are coffins and body bags, said Benito Ramos, who heads the government’s disaster-response agency.
“It’s overwhelming. We didn’t expect these many dead,” said Ramos, adding that authorities were continuing to find bodies floating at sea.
Edmund Rubio, a 44-year-old engineer, said he, his wife and two children scrambled to the second floor of their house in Iligan city as floodwaters engulfed the first floor, destroying his TV set and other appliances and washing away his car and motorcycle.
Amid the panic, he heard a loud pounding on his door as neighbors living in nearby one-story houses pleaded with him to allow them up to his second floor. He said he brought 30 neighbors to the safety of his house, which later shook when a huge floating log slammed into it.
“It’s the most important thing, that all of us will still be together this Christmas,” Rubio told the AP.
About a block away from Rubio’s house, rescuers used a backhoe and shovels to search for 19 people in the muddy ruins of a two-story house that collapsed when it was hit by a massive log. They dug out 11 bodies from the site Saturday, witnesses said.
Army officers reported unidentified bodies piled up in morgues in Cagayan de Oro, where electricity was restored in some areas, although the city of more than 500,000 people remained without tap water.
At least 346 died in Cagayan de Oro and 206 in Iligan, the Red Cross said. The death toll was expected to rise because many isolated villages still had not been reached by overwhelmed disaster-response personnel.
“Our fear is there may have been whole families that perished so there’s nobody to report what happened,” Pang said.