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Philippine Death Toll Rises in Worst Cyclone in Three Years

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Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The Philippines’ death toll from Tropical Storm Washi rose to 632, making it the deadliest cyclone to hit the nation in three years and sparking criticism of the government’s lack of preparation.

Eighty-two people were still missing, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said in its noon report today. The cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan on the southern island of Mindanao are preparing mass graves because coffins are in short supply and funeral parlors can’t keep up with the dead, Ana Caneda, regional director of the Office of Civil Defense, said by phone.

“The suffering here is unspeakable,” Philippine Red Cross Chairman Richard Gordon said in a telephone interview today from Iligan City, where he is helping oversee relief operations. “The government should act here very fast. The people have already suffered and they’re making them suffer more.” The Red Cross put casualties at 652.

Washi pummeled northern Mindanao, which is unaccustomed to cyclones, overflowing rivers and flooding coastal cities in the early hours of Dec. 17 while people were sleeping. The death toll from Washi surpassed that of Ketsana and Parma, which killed 464 and 465, respectively, and together damaged 38 billion pesos ($867 million) of homes, infrastructure and farm output. The Philippines is regularly battered by cyclones that form over the Pacific Ocean.

Better Preparation

“The costs are too high for us not to use what we have learned from past experiences in better preparing ourselves for future typhoons,” Senator Edgardo Angara, who heads the congressional commission on science and technology, said in a statement.

Damage to the farm sector is “still being assessed,” Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said in a report to President Benigno Aquino. Some 3,964 hectares of rice and corn land was “affected” and the damage in value terms is about 8.1 million pesos, he said, citing a preliminary report.

Aquino ordered agencies to report how they responded to the disaster, spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters in Manila today. “We recognize that there have been a lot of deaths in Mindanao and the President wants that looked into.”

The “government is fully equipped” and has 1.3 billion pesos in ready-to-use calamity fund to assist storm victims, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said in a statement today.

‘Clear And Present Danger’

“Climate change is a clear and present danger,” Senator Loren Legarda, who heads the climate change committee, said in a statement. “Demanding immediate government action to address its impact is the very least we can do.”

The nation’s weather bureau warned on Dec. 16 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.

“It was an explosion of water that killed hundreds of people in less than an hour,” Gordon said. Washi dumped 50 millimeters of rain per hour as forecast by foreign weather agencies, higher than the 10 to 20 millimeters predicted by the local weather agency, he said.

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. The Red Cross asked Del Monte to donate plywood used in packing fruits for coffins, since most of the bodies are bloated and wouldn’t fit in regular caskets, Gordon said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Norman P. Aquino in Manila at naquino1@bloomberg.net; Joel Guinto in Manila at jguinto1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lars Klemming at lklemming@bloomberg.net

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