MANILA, Philippines — Flash floods devastated a southern Philippines region unaccustomed to serious storms, killing more than 400 people while they slept, rousting hundreds of others to their rooftops and turning two coastal cities into muddy, debris-filled waterways that were strewn Saturday with overturned vehicles and toppled trees.
Most of the victims were asleep Friday night when raging floodwaters cascaded from the mountains after 12 hours of rain from a late-season tropical storm in the southern Mindanao region. The region is unaccustomed to the typhoons that are common elsewhere in the nation of islands.
Ayi Hernandez, a former congressman, said he and his family were resting in their home in Cagayan de Oro late Friday when they heard a loud “swooshing sound” and water quickly rose ankle-deep inside. He decided to evacuate to a neighbour’s two-story house.
“It was a good thing, because in less than an hour the water rose to about 11 feet (3.3 metres),” filling his home up to the ceiling, he said.
At least 436 were dead, based on a body count in funeral parlours, Philippine Red Cross Secretary General Gwen Pang told The Associated Press. She said that 215 died in Cagayan de Oro — a city of more than 500,000 — and 144 in nearby Iligan, with more than 300,000 residents. The rest died in several other southern and central provinces, she said.
Many of the bodies were unclaimed after nearly 24 hours, suggesting that entire families had died, Pang said.
The number of missing was unclear Saturday night. Before the latest Red Cross figures, military spokesman Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang said about 250 people were still unaccounted for in Iligan.
The swollen river sent floodwaters gushing through neighbourhoods that do not usually experience flooding. A man floated in an inner tube in muddy water littered with plastic buckets, pieces of wood and other debris. Ten people in one home stood on a sloping roof, waiting for rescuers even as water still flooded the lower floors.
Local television footage showed muddy water rushing in the streets, sweeping away all sorts of debris. Thick layers of mud coated streets where the waters had subsided. One car was thrown over a concrete fence and others were crushed and piled in a flooded canal.
Benito Ramos, chief of the government’s Civil Defence Office, attributed the high casualties in Mindanao “partly to the complacency of people because they are not in the usual path of storms” despite four days of warnings by officials that one was approaching.
Thousands of soldiers backed up by hundreds of local police, reservists, coast guard officers and civilian volunteers were mobilized for rescue efforts, but they were hampered by the flooded-out roads and lack of electricity.
Many roads were cut off and there was no electricity, hampering relief efforts.
The missing included prominent Filipino radio broadcaster Enie Alsonado, who was swept away while trying to save his neighbours, Iligan Mayor Lawrence Cruz said.
Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro said that about 20,000 residents of the city had been affected and that evacuees were packed in temporary shelters. Authorities recovered bodies from the mud after the water subsided.
Parts of concrete walls and roofs, toppled vehicles and other debris littered the streets.
Rescuers in boats rushed offshore to save people swept out to sea.
In Misamis Oriental province, 60 people were plucked from the ocean off El Salvador city, about six miles (10 kilometres) northwest of Cagayan de Oro, said disaster official Teddy Sabuga-a.
About 120 more were rescued off Opol township, closer to the city, he added.
Cruz said the Philippine coast guard and other rescuers were scouring the waters off Iligan for survivors or bodies that may have been swept away to sea.
Tropical Storm Washi dumped on Mindanao more than a month of average rains in just 12 hours.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that the Obama administration offered “deepest condolences” for the devastation in the southern Philippines.
“The U.S. government stands ready to assist Philippine authorities as they respond to this tragedy,” the statement said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of those affected.”