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Mass burials for Philippines flood victims
Officials fearful that bodies could pose health risk with more than 650 people dead and hundreds still missing.
Last Modified: 19 Dec 2011 19:24
Officials are considering digging mass graves for hundreds killed in weekend flash floods [Al Jazeera]

Authorities in the Philippines are preparing mass burials to minimise health risks as the death toll from flash flooding caused by tropical storm Washi rose to more than 650 with hundreds still missing. 

The Philippine Red Cross put the death toll on the Philippines' southern Mindanao island at 652 with 911 others listed as still missing on Monday, although government officials said the figures for the missing may have been overstated in the post-disaster chaos.

But hard-pressed authorities in Mindanao's port cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, where villagers were swept to sea as they slept in coastal slums, were struggling to cope with the devastation left by tropical storm Washi.

"Today we will dig a mass grave and bury the unclaimed bodies as well as those in an advanced state of decomposition," Lawrence Cruz, mayor of Iligan, said on national television.

Up to 50 of about 300 bodies recovered in Iligan since Washi struck in the early hours of Saturday will be communally buried, possibly during the day, so that they do not pose a health risk, Cruz said.

Television footage from an Iligan mortuary showed a corridor lined with bodies awaiting burial, wrapped in white plastic bags bound tightly with tan-coloured packaging tape.

About 47,000 evacuees are now huddled in evacuation centres in Washi's wake, mostly on the northern coast of Mindanao, a vast poverty-stricken island where Islamic separatists have battled against authorities for decades.

Rescue and relief efforts were being spearheaded by government troops normally assigned to fight rebels elsewhere on the island.

Many more missing

The Philippine health department has so far certified 533 deaths from the disaster, said the national disaster council's executive director Benito Ramos.

At least 239 others are missing, the council said in its latest update.

President Benigno Aquino is set to visit the disaster zone on Tuesday after ordering a review of the country's disaster defences.

Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Catholic Church, prayed for the victims of the latest natural disaster to hit the largely Roman Catholic archipelago, which is also prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The US offered assistance as Manila appealed for help to feed, clothe and house the thousands sheltering in evacuation centres, including many residents of shanty towns whose makeshift homes were destroyed by the storm.

Ramos, the disaster agency chief, said most of the victims were "informal settlers" - a term used for shanty town residents who are often unregistered by authorities.

One month's worth of normal rain fell in the affected area within a 24-hour period but residents, who were normally spared from typhoons that regularly hit other regions of the Philippines, ignored warnings to move to safe ground.

Authorities likened tropical storm Washi to Ketsana, one of the country's most devastating storms which dumped huge amounts of rain on Manila and other parts of the country in 2009, killing more than 460 people.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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