TACLOBAN CITY, December 22, 2003 (STAR) By Miriam Garcia Desacada - Rescuers continued to battle rain, mud and floodwaters to search for more than 100 people believed buried under tons of earth and debris and feared dead in several towns in southern Leyte.

"We’re receiving so many reports from the interior areas of whole villages being buried, of so many deaths, but we could not confirm them because roads were so badly damaged," Allen Olayvar of the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) in hard-hit Liloan town said.

Tacloban-based civil defense officer Paul Nogra said "if they are really buried under mud, then maybe there is only little hope left for them."

Rescuers on foot and in motorboats were trying to reach far-flung villages reported to have been buried by muddy landslides late Friday in Southern Leyte. Blocked roads and downed power and telephone lines hampered rescue efforts.

But those rescue efforts are "continuing intensely," said retired general Melchor Rosales, executive director of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC).

Army troops, police and civilian volunteers were helping, and military helicopters were waiting for the weather to clear enough for them to fly to hard-hit villages, he said.

"It is difficult to conjecture on their fate," Rosales said, when asked about the chances of recovering alive those listed as missing.

Most of the people were asleep when tons of mud and other debris swamped their houses, government officials said.

President Arroyo said Washington has offered to help, adding the government will formally request for United States Chinook helicopters, which can operate even in bad weather. The helicopters will come from a US base in Okinawa, Japan, she told reporters. It was not clear when they can fly in.

The President said Philippine choppers were not able to take off because of the weather.

Mrs. Arroyo did not push through with a plan to travel yesterday to Leyte after officials warned the trip would be very risky, Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

During a meeting at Malacañang yesterday, the President ordered the NDCC to speed up its search and rescue efforts, saying she received information that landslides also affected Surigao City, Surigao del Norte,Tiboli in South Cotabato, Mt. Diwalwal, Monkayo, Compostela Valley; Naga, Cebu and Surigao del Sur.

She ordered the immediate evacuation of families residing in areas where another landslide may occur due to severe denudation of forested areas.

"Although they are not yet affected by landslides I have ordered the evacuation of families living in areas where (there are) only agricultural plantations, which is not sufficient protection from landslides," Mrs. Arroyo said.

The President also instructed the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and local government units to strictly implement environmental protection laws to prevent similar tragedies.

Environment Secretary Elisea Gozun said the incident "underscores the importance of our forests and the urgent need to rehabilitate our denuded mountains."

The Department of Agriculture has assured that there is sufficient stock of rice and other food items in affected communities.

A team of social workers is set to arrive tomorrow to provide stress debriefing and counseling for affected families. Around 24,000 people are now staying in 30 temporary shelters put up by the government.

Television images of what could be the country’s worst disaster this year were grotesque: one showed a mud-splattered man desperately trying to dig out a body with a crowbar while a companion tried to pull the cadaver with his hands.

An elderly woman, who lost most of her loved ones, wept and said she wished she also had perished. Rescuers described digging up bodies of whole families buried together, including a mother embracing her children.

In a rural morgue, wooden coffins bearing pieces of paper with the scrawled names of the dead lay side by side, lit by melting candles on a table. Relatives were arriving to sort out the dead and look for loved ones among the bodies, some wrapped in cellophane.

Olayvar said he’s confirmed that in San Ricardo’s Pinut-an district, a huge wave swept across a gold-mining coastal village early Saturday, wiping out all but four huts and the chapel among its dozens of houses.

"The husband of the mayor was on a verandah but in the next instant, he vanished because of that wave," he said.

Survivors of the landslide at Barangay Punta swear they will no longer return to live in their village for fear they might not survive another landslide in the future.

Barangay chairman Ricky Subang said that in due time they will ask the government for another site on which to rebuild their village.

Death toll to rise

The death toll from the landslides and floods in southern Leyte reached 101 yesterday, and is expected to rise even higher.

Eighty bodies recovered at Barangay Punta in San Francisco were placed in the town’s auditorium, while rescuers are still trying to retrieve the bodies of those believed to have been buried alive by the landslide.

Forty-nine were missing after a tornado ravaged a village in San Ricardo town, according to OCD operations chief Olive Lucas.

Southern Leyte Gov. Rosette Lerias confirmed yesterday morning that 21 people from five families in Liloan died from the landslide.

She also said that in Barangay Punta alone, 300 people were affected by the landslide, which buried 83 houses.

Lerias blamed widespread illegal logging in the nearby hills for the landslides.

Experts said massive deforestation, mountainous terrain and equatorial air systems that lead to thunderstorms with low air pressure were to blame for the disaster.

"The area is mountainous, but the main problem there is, the mountains have been shorn of trees," government weather forecaster Leny Ruiz said.

The absence of trees reduced the water-holding capacity of the slopes, leading to the mudslides, he said.

Meanwhile, environmentalist Jamby Madrigal said government neglect of the reforestation program and too much politics were to blame for the recent Leyte tragedy.

She recalled that some 10 years ago, newly planted trees in the denuded mountains that surrounded four municipalities of the hardhit Paraon island were burned after concerned citizens exposed a fund anomaly in the implementation of the reforestation project.

Madrigal added the Arroyo administration’s decision to cut the 2004 budget of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources by P7 billion was one glaring evidence of lack of concern over the worsening environmental condition of the country.

"True, the present government had nothing to do with the denudation of forests and mountains. But by doing nothing to solve our present predicament, it is equally guilty as those who destroyed the environment," she said.

A similar tragedy befell Ormoc Ciity in November 1991, when nearly 4,000 people were killed in landslides and floods caused by a typhoon. Many of those who died were never found, their bodies believed washed away into the sea.

Officials have agreed to release only verified casualty figures, with the death toll expected to rise when rescuers reach villages where huge casualties were reported.

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) reported yesterday that an intertropical convergence zone is affecting Visayas and Mindanao.

Eastern Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, including Palawan, will continue to experience cloudy skies with scattered rainshowers and thunderstorms becoming widespread rains over eastern and central Visayas and eastern Mindanao, according to a forecast by Pagasa.

Mindanao tragedy

In a separate tragedy, a dozen people were killed in landslides and flash floods in Mindanao.

In Bohol, three people were reported to have drowned in a flashflood while one was missing and feared dead.

Retired Navy Capt. Nanito Arellano, executive officer of the Bohol provincial disaster coordinating council, said 160 families in Guindulman town were evacuated and housed in a school building.

He also reported that nine barangays in Loboc town and another three in Inabanga town were flooded.

Landslides occurred in the towns of Jagna and Sierra Bullones, particularly in barangays Malbog, Cabungahan and Pandan.

The disaster coordinating councils in these towns have yet to submit their reports on fatalities or injuries from the flash floods and landslides.

At least two children were killed by landslides at Mt. Diwalwal in Monkayo, Compostela Valley.

Lt. Col. Maximo Caro, commander of the Army’s 36th Infantry Battalion based at Mt. Diwalwal, said at least 29 families have been affected. Residents in surrounding areas have been warned to immediately transfer to safer ground should the rains continue unabated.

"We are checking on and gathering the affected families at the barangay hall," Caro said.

The uncoordinated digging of tunnels by miners in Mt. Diwalwal has also been blamed for landslides that have repeatedly occurred in the area. Hundreds of people have reportedly been killed by landslides since mining operations started in the early 1980s.

The OCD office in Region 11 is monitoring other flood-prone towns in southern Mindanao, particularly Panabo and Carmen in Davao del Norte and other municipalities in Compostela Valley.

Authorities consider the towns of Malita and Jose Abad Santos in Davao del Sur as also flood-prone.

‘Disaster waiting to happen’

Sen. Edgardo Angara said the landslide in southern Leyte is one of the disasters waiting to happen due to man’s abuse of the environment.

"There are other areas where environmental catastrophes are waiting to happen. An exhaustive and thorough assessment of areas where these would possibly occur should be undertaken so that preventive measures could be (implemented)," he said.

Angara warned that an environmental disaster will happen in Palawan due to the planned intensified mineral-extracting activities of Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corporation.

He called for the DENR to revoke the environmental clearance certificate it issued to the firm for the construction of a hydrometallurgical processing plant in Rio Tuba, Bataraza, Palawan.

Angara cited studies showing that the construction and operation of the mining facility will wipe out old-growth forests and endangered plants and animals.

The mining company’s proposed 280-meter causeway to support its sulfuric acid pipeline will be built on top of live corals adjacent to a mangrove area, a seagrass bed and coral reef formation, he added. — With Roberto Dejon, Mayen Jaymalin, Christina Mendez, Edith Regalado, AFP, Freeman

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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