Mass burial of flood victims begins as hundreds of dead start to ‘pile up’

ILIGAN, Phillipines — With funeral parlors overwhelmed, authorities in a flood-stricken southern Philippine city on Monday organized the first mass burial of some of nearly 700 people who were swept to their deaths in one of worst calamities to strike the region in decades.

For the first time in a day, the staggering death toll from Friday night’s disaster, spawned by a tropical storm, remained little changed but the number of missing varied widely.

Official figures put the missing at 82, while the Philippine Red Cross estimated 800.

The disparity underscores the difficulty in accounting for people who could be buried in the mud and debris littering much of the area or could be alive but lost in crowded evacuation centers or elsewhere.

“We lost count of how many are missing,” said Benito Ramos, head of the government’s Office of Civil Defense.

In Iligan, a coastal industrial hub of 330,000 people, Mayor Lawrence Cruz said the city’s half-dozen parlors were full to capacity and no longer accepting bodies.

The first burial of 50 or so unclaimed bodies was to take place later Monday in individual tombs at the city cemetery, he said.

“For public health purposes, we’re doing this. The bodies are decomposing, and there is no place where we can place them, not in an enclosed building, not in a gymnasium,” Mr. Cruz told the Associated Press.

He said many of the Iligan dead - 279 by official count - “are just piled and laid outside the morgues,” which ran out of formaldehyde for embalming and coffins.

“We’re using plastic bags, whatever is available,” Mr. Cruz said.

About 143,000 people were affected in 13 southern and central provinces, including 45,000 who fled to evacuation centers.

Nearly 7,000 houses were swept away, destroyed or damaged, the Office of Civil Defense said.

An estimated 35 percent of evacuees are children, said Trevor Clark, head of UNICEF in the southern Mindanao region.

Running water and hygiene were major concerns, followed by a lack of clothing, blankets and even shoes for young children, Mr. Clark said.

He said government agencies were responding quickly and efficiently but were overwhelmed, and the U.N. was preparing an appeal for urgent assistance.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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