- Associated Press - Saturday, December 17, 2011

ILIGAN, Philippines (AP) — 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.

Ms. 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 eagerly had planned a small Christmas dinner in that hut just days earlier.

“I returned and saw that our house was completely gone,” a weeping Ms. 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. It killed at least 652 people and left more than 900 others missing, the Philippine Red Cross said.

Most of the victims were asleep Friday night when flash floods cascaded down mountain slopes with logs and uprooted trees, swelling rivers. 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, Red Cross Secretary General Gwendolyn Pang said.

The government’s Office of Civil Defense placed the number of dead at 516 with 274 missing and 431 others rescued. Its head, Benito Ramos, said he expected the toll to rise and added that the government count was slower because authorities try to identify each casualty by verifying it with relatives.

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 about 45,000 displaced villagers. Among the items urgently needed are coffins and body bags, Mr. Ramos said.

“It’s overwhelming. We didn’t expect these many dead,” said Mr. Ramos, adding that authorities were continuing to find bodies floating at sea.

Although the disaster-prone Philippines is lashed by about 20 typhoons and storms annually, the devastation shocked many, coming close to Christmas — this predominantly Roman Catholic nation’s most-awaited time for family reunions. Army officials in the south said they canceled Christmas parties and would donate the food to homeless survivors.

Ms. Limbago said she and her mother, Jean, 50, and father, Amancio, 63, planned to have a simple Christmas dinner of spaghetti. Those plans had evaporated Sunday as she and surviving relatives checked crowded morgues, hospitals and evacuation centers for any sign of her missing parents.

Others lost homes and belongings but were happy to have survived.

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.

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