Philippine rescuers pulled out more bodies Wednesday from a community buried under a massive landslide, as the death toll from the first storm to hit the Southeast Asian country this year surpassed 60 with many other people still missing, officials said.
Most of the at least 63 dead were from Baybay City in central Leyte province, where heavily saturated soil gave way as Tropical Storm Megi (known locally as Agaton) dumped massive rains, which set off a landslide burying an entire hinterland community, according to disaster authorities.
The landslide took many residents by surprise because it reached areas earlier considered safe by experts, Mark Timbal, spokesman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, told reporters in Manila on Wednesday.
“The landslide reached beyond the hazard-prone areas and into the relatively safer part of the community that was supposedly safe,” he said during a nationally televised press briefing.
“Some of the residents had evacuated there and did not expect the landslide to reach that location.”
The country’s disaster agency said nine regions had been affected, displacing more than 139,000 people, many of who were staying in makeshift evacuation centers.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 48 bodies had been recovered from the agricultural city of Baybay alone, according to casualty tallies provided by the police and other emergency services.
Six other fatalities were reported elsewhere in Leyte. One person drowned in Samar province, and eight others perished in the central provinces of Cebu, Negros Oriental, and the Davao region in the south.
At least 28 other people were still listed as missing, many of them in Baybay, Leyte’s second-biggest city that is home to about 112,000, according to the latest statistics.
The local city mayor in Baybay had preemptively evacuated people from areas designated as danger zones, Timbal said.
“We did not foresee the devastation brought about by this landslide,” Timbal said, adding while the storm has left the Philippines, intermittent rains have continued, exacerbating the situation in flooded areas.
“We are reminding the public to take extreme care and to continue coordinating with our local government units for their safety,” he said.
In pictures released by the Philippine Coast Guard, landslides buried a mountain village of Kantagnos, also in Baybay, an incident confirmed by mayor Jose Carlos Cari, who said that their rescue teams had deployed to the area that has more than 200 households.
“There were so many survivors. But more are feared dead as search and rescue operations continue for the missing,” Cari told DZMM radio in Manila.
“There were two landslides – a small one where some people managed to escape before the huge one that buried the entire village.”
Rhyse Austero, the local disaster chief of Baybay, said more than 5,000 people, mostly from low-lying villages, were currently staying in evacuation centers.
“Flooding is still experienced in all low-lying villages. The non-stop rain is also a big challenge in our ongoing search, rescue, and retrieval operations,” Austero said.
In the nearby town of Abuyog, also in Leyte, local officials also reported a massive landslide on Tuesday afternoon that buried almost 100 homes, left two people dead, and injured 96 others.
Abuyog’s mayor, Lemuel Gin Traya, said the local government was clearing the road to reach nearby communities in Pilar village as a preemptive evacuation measure when the landslide happened.
“Moments later, we were all terrified, realizing that Pilar had been completely devastated by a disastrous landslide,” Traya said.
Richard Gordon, a senator who serves as the Philippine Red Cross chairman, said his team members were rescuing people in villages.
“Yesterday, our teams rescued dozens of people and families out of their flooded homes,” he said. “The heavy rains dumped by Agaton caused widespread flooding and landslides.”
The Philippines endures about 20 tropical storms and typhoons annually, some of which are devastating.
In November 2013, more than 6,500 people died or were missing after Super Typhoon Haiyan battered the central Philippines, causing massive storm surges that inundated coastal communities.