'Sendong' leaves 440 dead, 200 missing

Posted at 12/17/2011 4:14 PM | Updated as of 12/18/2011 8:26 AM

ILIGAN, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) - More than 600 people were feared killed on Saturday when tropical storm "Sendong" (international name: Washi) whipped the southern Philippines, unleashing mammoth floods across vast areas of the country.

Relief workers said that 440 people had died and nearly 200 left missing after the storm wreaked havoc, destroying whole neighborhoods.

About 20,000 soldiers had been mobilized in a huge rescue and relief operation across the stricken north coast of the island of Mindanao, where the major ports of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan were worst hit.

Cagayan de Oro city reported 215 dead, and nearby Iligan city lost 144 residents, Philippine National Red Cross secretary-general Gwen Pang told AFP.

Iligan mayor Lawrence Cruz described rampaging floodwaters from swollen rivers that swamped up to a quarter of the land area of the city of 100,000.

"It's the worst flood in the history of our city," Cruz told local television. "It happened so fast, at a time when people were fast asleep."

The station showed dramatic pictures of a family escaping out of the window of their home in the town as the floods rose, and rescue workers in orange vests shepherding survivors to safety above chest-deep waters.

President Benigno Aquino expressed concern at the extent of the tragedy and ordered government agencies to map out areas in the country most vulnerable to future flash floods.

"These areas will be at risk every year... The first (step in) mitigation has to be relocation from these areas," he said in a meeting with senior civil defense officials.

Benito Ramos, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council told reporters Mindanao residents were warned about the dangers posed by the storm days earlier but elected not to move to safer areas.

He said Mindanao was rarely visited by storms, even as 20 major storms strike the Philippines annually, with most hitting Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the Southeast Asian archipelago.

"We expect huge damage, especially on agriculture," Ramos said.

Marlyn Manos, an Iligan resident, recounted how she and her children watched in terror from their rooftop as the floodwaters swallowed up the neighborhood.

"All the small houses behind ours were destroyed, and many of my neighbors are missing," she said.

Iligan tourism officer Pat Noel told AFP waters began rising shortly before midnight (1600 GMT Friday) as people slept, sweeping houses made of light materials and their inhabitants along the riverbanks.

"Many of them told me they sought refuge on their rooftops," he said after joining the first wave of rescuers at daybreak.

Two of the three rivers that flow into the port of Iligan had overflowed, he added, and a popular radio commentator was among those killed.

Other affected areas on Mindanao included Bukidnon province, where 47 people died, while nine others people were killed elsewhere on the island, Pang of the Red Cross said.

Twenty-five people meanwhile drowned on the island of Negros, the provincial civil defense office told AFP.

"What happened was beyond the expectation of the public," said the civil defense official, Minda Morante.

Pang said 162 people were still missing in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, while a Negros official said 19 people were missing there.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent condolences to the Philippines Saturday.

"On behalf of President (Barack) Obama and the people of the United States, I want to send my deepest condolences for the devastation and loss of life caused by flooding from Tropical Storm Washi," Clinton said in a statement.

"The US government stands ready to assist Philippine authorities as they respond to this tragedy."

The top US diplomat said "our thoughts and prayers are with all of those affected."

Britain also offered its condolences for the "tragic" loss of life.

Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne said in a statement: "I would like to express my sincere condolences to the families and friends of those affected. My thoughts are with them and the government of the Philippines as they lead the recovery work."

More than 4,000 people in flooded areas were moved to evacuation centers, the disaster agency in Manila said.

The western island of Palawan is expected to be hit with Washi's slightly weakened peak winds of 65 miles (46.4 miles) before dawn Sunday, the state weather service said in an updated bulletin.