Toll rises in Philippine landslide

MANILA: Rescuers dug out six survivors and more bodies buried under landslides that killed at least 225 people in the storm-soaked northern Philippines, as workers rushed Saturday to clear mountain roads to aid relief efforts.

U.S. military helicopters were on standby to help the Philippine air force deliver aid to areas cut off by road as flooded highways hampered the search for people trapped in houses buried by mud. Several choppers flew over areas Saturday where U.S. troops planned to conduct medical missions and deliver supplies.

The rain-triggered landslides late Thursday and early Friday were the latest natural disaster to hit the Philippines, bringing to more than 600 the total death toll of back-to-back storms that began pummeling the main island of Luzon Sept. 26, causing the worst flooding in more than 40 years.

Rescue operations were centered on two vast areas — the severely flooded Pangasinan province northwest of Manila, and a swath covering the worst landslide-hit provinces of Benguet, Mountain Province and the resort city of Baguio, where most of the deaths occurred.

A 17-year-old boy was rescued from the rubble in his home in Baguio late Friday, and five others were pulled out alive in Mountain Province, said regional civil defense official Olive Luces.

On Saturday, only more bodies were pulled from under tons of mud and rocks, but Luces said, "We are hopeful that we will get more people alive."

She said local officials reported 152 bodies have so far been recovered in Benguet and 23 in Mountain Province in the country's Cordillera region on the main Philippine island of Luzon after landslides. She corrected an earlier figure of 60 bodies recovered in Baguio city, saying officials reported only 50 had been found.

Aside from the 197 who died in the landslides late Thursday and early Friday, the National Disaster Coordinating Council said 51 people from eight other provinces also were killed after Typhoon Parma made landfall Oct. 3, weakened into a tropical depression and dumped more rain as it lingered over the northern region for about 10 days.

A week earlier, Tropical Storm Ketsana left 337 people dead in the worst floods to hit Manila and nearby provinces in four decades.

The sun was peeking through the clouds over Baguio and volunteers, mostly miners, were taking advantage of the relatively good weather to step up the search for survivors, Luces said. She also called on local communities to help clear debris blocking the roads.

Army engineers were trying to remove mounds of mud and boulders on one road to Baguio. The regional center has been isolated since Thursday's landslides. The Public Works Department was clearing debris on another highway to the city, but an 82-foot (25-meter section) of that mountain road had been washed away, cutting off all traffic, she said.

Mayor Artemio Galwan of La Trinidad township in Benguet province said 78 bodies have been recovered there. He appealed for shovels and other tools as well as portable spotlights to allow volunteers to continue digging at night.

He said the rains and landslides devastated crops in his area, regarded as the country's "salad bowl" for its vegetable farms and strawberry fields.

Benguet Gov. Nestor Fongwan told ABS-CBN television his province needed more embalmers and caskets for the large number of dead.

Water was receding from low-lying provinces south of the Cordillera region, but most of the rice-growing province of Pangasinan northwest of Manila was still submerged. In the provincial capital of Dagupan, floodwater was about waist deep.

The USS Harpers Ferry and USS Tortuga were anchored in the Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan, where more than 200 Marines and sailors were ready to deploy for rescue and relief operations, U.S. Marine Capt. Jorge Escatell said.

U.S. troops trucked tons of food from the U.N. World Food Program from Manila to a Philippine military camp in Tarlac province adjacent to Pangasinan for distribution by American troops on Sunday, said Escatell from Houston, Texas.

Marine CH-46 helicopters also flew over the flood-ravaged region to assess the damage and find locations for a medical mission and food distribution. Heavy equipment also will be brought in to help clear the roads littered with debris, he said.

"The focus is on the Cordillera," said Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner. "The roads are impassable and the only way to reach Baguio is through air."

He said the helicopters will try to penetrate the fog-shrouded mountains to drop off supplies at the Baguio airport, from where they can be distributed by land.