ILIGAN, Philippines — 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.
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 had eagerly planned a small Christmas dinner in that hut just days earlier.
“I returned and saw that our house was completely gone,” a weeping 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.
Iligan Mayor Lawrence Cruz said Monday that he was suggesting a mass burial because of health concerns. Apart from the decomposing bodies, dead livestock lie scattered in the mud.
Leaders around the world, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, offered help and Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday said he would pray “for the victims, largely children, for the homeless, and for the numerous ones gone missing”.
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, said Benito Ramos, who heads the government’s disaster-response agency.
“It’s overwhelming. We didn’t expect these many dead,” said 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 — the 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.
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.
“It’s the most important thing, that all of us will still be together this Christmas,” Rubio told the AP.
About a block away from Rubio’s house, rescuers used a backhoe and shovels to search for 19 people in the muddy ruins of a two-story house that collapsed when it was hit by a massive log. They dug out 11 bodies from the site Saturday, witnesses said.
Army officers reported unidentified bodies piled up in morgues in Cagayan de Oro, where electricity was restored in some areas, although the city of more than 500,000 people remained without tap water.
At least 346 died in Cagayan de Oro and 206 in Iligan, the Red Cross said. The death toll was expected to rise because many isolated villages still had not been reached by overwhelmed disaster-response personnel.
“Our fear is there may have been whole families that perished so there’s nobody to report what happened,” Pang said.
Both Iligan, a bustling industrial center about 485 miles (780 kilometers) southeast of Manila, and Cagayan de Oro were filled with scenes of destruction and desperation.
A lone worker gingerly embalmed scores of bodies laid side by side in an Iligan city funeral parlor. Outside the embalming room, seven white coffins were placed in a corridor, surrounded by weeping relatives.
“Many mothers, fathers were walking from one funeral parlor to another, looking for their children,” said army Maj. Eugenio Osias, who led a rescue effort in Cagayan de Oro.
Ramos attributed the high casualties “partly to the complacency of people because they are not in the usual path of storms” despite warnings by officials that one was approaching.
In just 12 hours, Washi dumped more than a month of average rain on Mindanao.
Thousands of soldiers and hundreds of local police, reservists, coast guard officers and civilian volunteers were mobilized for rescue efforts, but were hampered by flooded-out roads and lack of electricity. Rescuers in boats rushed offshore to save people swept out to sea.