Sunday, 11 October 2009

US troops help Philippines as storm toll tops 600


MANILA, Philippines — American military helicopters started ferrying 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 were flying 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.

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

Philippine officials asked US troops, which were in the country for an annual war exercise, to instead help with relief operations. About 700 Marines and sailors were on hand to help out, said Marine Capt. Jorge Escatell, a US military spokesman.

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

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 and pine trees. Rescuers continued to dig through a huge mound of mud in Crescencia village in search of more than 10 still-missing residents, Baguio city police chief Agrifino Javier said.

While the weather has cleared, the city of more than 300,000 people faced dwindling food and gasoline supplies. Repair crews scrambled to remove landslides blocking Kennon road to allow fresh supplies in. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo managed to fly in by helicopter Sunday to check the situation, officials said.

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

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 158. At least 20 people remain missing, Benguet police chief Senior Supt. Loreto Espineli said.

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

Food supply was not a problem in Benguet, regarded as the country's "salad bowl" for its vegetable farms and strawberry fields.

Gasoline, however, was already being rationed and 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, he 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 flood 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.

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 surrounding provinces. More than 287,000 remain in evacuation centers.

Then Typhoon Parma struck Oct. 3 and lingered as a tropical depression for about a week, also over the main northern Philippine island of Luzon, before blowing away toward southern China. It has dumped more heavy rains, triggering floods and landslides that have killed at least 276 people. It has displaced about 170,000 people.

With large expanses of land still under water, officials say the natural disaster will have a major impact on agriculture.

Arroyo declared a state of emergency over the entire Luzon region, allowing officials to rapidly draw emergency funds for relief work. The United Nations has also appealed for international assistance to help the impoverished Southeast Asian nation recover from the disaster. - AP

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