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Philippine typhoons death toll tops 600

October 11, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
American military helicopters ferried tons of aid Sunday to a northern Philippine mountain region facing shortages of food, gasoline and coffins after back-to-back typhoons killed more than 600 in the country. Four Marine CH-46 helicopters flew to Baguio city, which along with nearby provinces was devastated by storm-triggered mudslides that have blocked three key access roads to the area, isolating the upland region in recent days.

Workers with bulldozers partly cleared one road Sunday, allowing cars but not relief trucks to pass, disaster-response agency spokesman Lt. Col. Ernesto Torres said.

The U.S. military was responding to a request from the Philippines to help deal with the aftermath of two major storms since Sept. 26. Tropical Depression Parma blew out of the country's mountainous north late Saturday, allowing U.S. troops to start airlifting food aid to Baguio.

About 700 Marines and sailors were on hand to help out, said Marine Capt. Jorge Escatell, a U.S. military spokesman.

The helicopters flew to northern San Fernando township, where they picked up about 10 tons of food that were delivered to Baguio.

The floods and landslides killed at least 53 people in Baguio, a summer tourist destination 130 miles (210 kilometers) north of Manila known for its cool climate. Rescuers continued to dig through a huge mound of mud in Crescencia village in search of more than 10 residents who were still missing, Baguio police chief Agrifino Javier said.

While the weather has cleared, the city of more than 300,000 people faced dwindling food and gasoline supplies. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo flew in by helicopter Sunday to check the situation.

"There is nearly zero gasoline supply now, and we're running low on food," Javier told The Associated Press, adding many foreign tourists were among those stranded in the city.

Gasoline was being rationed and residents have been urged to calm after panic-buying emptied several stores of canned goods, said disaster-response officer Olive Luces.

In nearby Benguet province, police and volunteer gold miners pulled more bodies overnight from houses buried by mudslides late Thursday and early Friday, bringing the province-wide death toll from Parma to 175. At least 20 people remain missing, provincial police chief Loreto Espineli said.

Most of the dead were recovered in a mountainside community called Little Kibungan, where tons of mud and floodwaters buried or swept away houses as people slept late Thursday after a week of pounding rain, Espineli said.

Marsman Diang said he wept as he frantically dug into the mud Friday for his five nieces and nephews in Little Kibungan. Four were found dead, wrapped in a bedsheet. One was pulled out barely breathing and did not make it to the hospital alive.

The children's father, Diang's brother, left to work in Japan two months ago to raise money for the kids' education. "He couldn't talk. I heard him weeping with his wife when I called to tell them that their children were gone," Diang said.

Apart from shortage of gasoline, the province has run out of coffins. Volunteers were busy making wooden coffins for six bodies found in Benguet's capital town of La Trinidad, Espineli said.

Aside from delivering packs of sardines, bottled water and rice in Baguio, American and Filipino forces also fanned out in Pangasinan, a rice-producing province to its south, to help provide medical treatment. Nearly all of Pangasinan was inundated by flooding and water released from a major dam, but some areas struggled back to normalcy Sunday.

"I see people drying up rice crop on the roadside. It's pretty amazing to me and I think that's a good sign," Escatell told The AP.

With large expanses of land still under water, officials said damage to agriculture and infrastructure reached $312 million.

Troops from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Okinawa, Japan, had just finished rescue and cleanup work around Manila, which experienced the worst flooding in over 40 years after Tropical Storm Ketsana dumped record rains Sept. 26. That disaster displaced about 1 million people and killed 337 in the capital and nearby provinces. More than 241,000 remain in evacuation centers.

Then Typhoon Parma struck Oct. 3 and lingered as a tropical depression for about a week before blowing away toward China, where two people went missing Sunday after their fishing boat capsized.

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