Philippines gripped by storm tragedy

Slash-and-burn farmer Richard Seles struggled to keep tears at bay as he frantically dug a shallow grave for his infant son with a small shovel on a mountain pass.

Lying on the muddy ground was a small wooden box wrapped tightly in plastic containing his son, his second child, who was stillborn at the height of a landslide on Wednesday.

The baby was also named Richard. The 37-year-old father had hoped to send him to university so he could help the small family earn a decent living instead of cutting down trees in the hills and growing small plots of vegetables.

“He was my boy. I had wanted him to become successful.
I had a lot of dreams for him. But the mountain has claimed him,” Seles said as he sadly watched soldiers lower the coffin into the shallow grave. “That will only be a dream now.”

Other villagers had also buried three bodies dug out from under tonnes of rubble. Their identities were unknown.

A deadly cocktail of mud, floodwater and boulders crashed into Seles’ hillside home in the village of Tanawan near Real, east of Manila, on Wednesday as his young wife was in labour.

Extreme fear, exhaustion and the roaring, thunder-like scream of the moving ground had brought the baby on weeks early, said Seles, a small wiry man who has been farming the Sierra Madre mountain range looming above Real for decades.

“She was terrified and it’s the mountain that caused her to go into labour prematurely. It is God’s will. I haven’t seen anything quite like it before.

“We were lucky to be alive,” he said, adding that his wife was being cared for by his other child, a 10-year-old girl, in a safer place further up the highway.

He said he will return to recover his son’s body from the shallow pit when the weather clears. His only landmark for the grave is a small guava tree that survived strong winds overnight.

Nearby, tractors and bulldozers struggled to clear debris that had blocked the main highway to the centre of town, where many more bodies were believed lying in a state of decomposition after floods.

Towns cut off

Real and the nearby towns of Infanta and General Nakar were the worst hit by storms that have battered Luzon island in recent days. It is a region of about 110 000 people which accounted for nearly 90% of the estimated 900 dead or missing. Another typhoon, Nanmadol, was due to hit the region on Thursday.

The mountain highway to Real remained blocked by huge boulders that had been washed down by floods. In one section near Seles’ home, half of the road had turned into an unstable cliff strewn with logs. Water cascading from the slopes had transformed a brook into swollen rapids.

Soldiers and journalists struggling to reach the town centre by road passed by a small brick house perilously overhanging a cliff.

But the family refused to leave. “We dont have anywhere else to go, anyway, and inside it’s still warm,” said the father, who refused to give his name, but offered everyone boiled cassava roots.

Seles blames lumber companies, which allegedly operate illegally on the mountain, for the disaster.

“What I can say is that it is illegal. Please stop it. People are dying,” he said, but was quick to defend slash-and-burn farmers who only farm a small portion of the mountain. “We only farm to live and eat. Not to destroy the mountain.”

Another typhoon coming

Meanwhile Typhoon Nanmadol, packing winds of up to 220km/h, hit the eastern island of Catanduanes and was headed for the main Philippine island of Luzon.

The government suspended ferry services and grounded propeller-driven aircraft, stranding several thousand passengers, the civil defence office said.

President Gloria Arroyo closed schools for the day and sent non-essential government staff home at midday. She put presidential helicopters at the disposal of the government rescuers.

The Red Cross said Nanmadol killed at least one person on Catanduanes. The victim was electrocuted in the provincial capital Virac. About 1 500 people from five other towns on the island fled their homes and sought shelter at government centres Meteorologists said the typhoon hovered above Catanduanes at 10am (2am GMT) and was expected to hit the east coast of Luzon.

The eye was expected to pass the storm-battered town of Real late on Thursday with peak winds of 185km/.

The air force and the navy said air and sea rescue operations for the victims of a storm that hit Real and nearby areas on Monday were suspended due to the high winds and low cloud cover.

Up to 30% of the military’s planes or helicopters have been deployed for typhoon relief, said air force spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Restituto Padilla.

Arroyo’s better-equipped helicopters pressed on with a search at the mountain town of Siniloan, 75km southeast of Manila, “to probe and see if we can still conduct even on a limited scale search and rescue and relief operations for our citizens there,” Padilla added.

In northeastern Luzon small teams of infantrymen set out on foot to deliver food and medicine to hamlets buried by mud or marooned by floods. The centre of relief operations is in the three towns of Real, Infanta and General Nakar.

Small teams of soldiers fanned out to the worst-hit villages and towns on foot, with one team reaching General Nakar before dawn after a 20-hour slog, fording swollen rivers and marching through mud-covered and debris-strewn roads, Padilla said.

“They are carrying some noodles, canned goods and other [food]. If they meet any surviving victims along the way, they will give them relief packs on their way to Real and Infanta,” said local rescue operations director Colonel Jaime Buenaflor.

Volunteer rescuers unearthed 97 bloated bodies from a beach house in the village of Tignoan on Real’s outskirts. The victims were buried by mudslides. More than 100 residents had sought refuge there to escape the rising floodwaters.

“We are digging with spades and our bare hands” because heavy equipment could not get through due to collapsed bridges and roads buried by landslides, said their team leader, Mario Nanola.

He and a dozen members of the team pulled out temporarily early on Thursday to fetch food for the other members of the team.

“There are no body bags available. The stench is unbearable,” Nanola said. He said he heard from survivors that more bodies were afloat at the coast.

In the northern mountain resort of Baguio, panicked residents cleared grocery shelves before the arrival of Typhoon Nanmadol. Long queues were seen at bank cash dispensers. - Sapa-AFP

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