Tropical Storm Washi, the most-devastating cyclone to hit the Philippines this year, killed at least 652 people, according to the Red Cross. With hundreds still unaccounted for, the death toll is likely to rise.
Washi pummeled northern Mindanao, which is unaccustomed to cyclones, overflowing rivers and flooding coastal cities at the early hours of Dec. 17 while people were asleep. The storm dumped 181 millimeters of rain per hour compared to the 25 millimeters per hour typical in the region, said Benito Ramos, administrator of the Office of Civil Defense. Local governments didn’t carry out preemptive evacuations even after warnings of flooding and landslides, he said.
The Philippines is regularly battered by cyclones that form over the Pacific Ocean, usually sparing southern provinces. In September 2009, Typhoon Ketsana flooded Manila and parts of Luzon, killing more than 400 people. Shortly after, Typhoon Parma followed a similar path, leading to a combined death toll of at least 929 people, damaging more than 38 billion pesos ($867 million) of homes, infrastructure and farm output.
“It seems we have not learned our lessons from these calamities,” said Richard Gordon, chairman of the Philippine Red Cross in a phone interview yesterday. The death toll may have been capped by preemptive evacuation and if local bodies had been informed about the amount of rainfall to be expected.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council counted the dead at 334 with 281 missing in its 8 p.m. report. More than 46,000 are in evacuation areas, it said. Washi exited the nation as of 10 p.m., the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical & Astronomical Services Administration said.
“The death toll is rising very fast,” Red Cross Secretary General Gwen Pang said on Dec. 17. “It’s a combination of heavy rainfall, strong currents, swollen rivers and high tides.” More than 808 people are missing, Pang said yesterday. The disaster management council said 4,404 homes were damaged.
Cagayan de Oro, which suffered the biggest death toll in northern Mindanao, needs potable water after floods damaged pipes, Major Eugenio Osias said yesterday. Social Works Department activated 68 million pesos worth of supplies and assistance for storm-ravaged areas, the disaster council said.
Funeral parlors have refused to embalm bodies in advanced stages of decomposition, Iligan City Mayor Lawrence Cruz told ABS-CBN News Channel yesterday.
”We decided to dig a shallow grave and bury them temporarily because this will cause sickness,” he said.
The government is coordinating with the military in providing makeshift coffins, President Benigno Aquino’s spokeswoman Abigail Valte told local radio.
A military aircraft was scheduled to deliver about 1,500 bottles of drinking water yesterday afternoon, said Edwin Lacierda, a presidential spokesman. Evacuation centers need portable toilets, Cruz said.
The nation’s weather bureau on Dec. 16 warned against floods, landslides and strong winds and placed more than a dozen provinces on alert. Residents ignored flood warnings, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman said on Dec. 17.
President Aquino called a meeting of the national disaster council, ordered the social welfare and interior departments to assist victims and called for a review of the nation’s disaster response and preparedness. Aquino is scheduled to fly to the region on Dec. 20.
“We’re expecting huge damage, especially in agriculture,” Civil Defense’s Ramos said on Dec. 17.
Northern Mindanao produces rice, the Philippines’ staple food, and is also home to pineapple and banana plantations, including those of Del Monte Foods Co.’s local unit.
In Cagayan de Oro, 346 people died, mostly in flash floods while 206 were killed in Iligan City, 47 in Bukidnon and 36 in Negros Oriental, Red Cross’s Pang said. Deaths were also recorded in Zamboanga del Norte, Surigao del Sur, Compostela Valley and Lanao del Norte.
Some bodies were recovered as far as 60 kilometers from Iligan, swept by floods, Cruz said. Chances of finding the missing are becoming dimmer, he said.