Death Toll from Philippine Typhoon Rises Sharply as Rescuers Reach Devastated Areas

Jeoffrey Maitem and Dennis Jay Santos
2021.12.20
Davao, Philippines
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Death Toll from Philippine Typhoon Rises Sharply as Rescuers Reach Devastated Areas Surigao del Norte province residents clean their clothes in a river after Super Typhoon Rai struck the Philippines, Dec. 18, 2021.
Philippine Coast Guard handout via Reuters

The death toll from Super Typhoon Rai (Odette) shot up as rescuers reached areas in the Philippines that were previously inaccessible after last week’s devastating storm, officials said Monday.

At 6 p.m. Monday, the Philippine National Police reported that the death toll had climbed to 375 throughout the country. But the statement from the police department carried this caveat: “Increase in casualties is subject for validation from the affected regions.”

Many of the deaths were in the island province of Bohol in the central Philippines, where the Loboc River burst its banks and flooded entire communities, officials said. Arthur Yap, the provincial governor, said the death toll had reached 94 – 20 more than he reported on Sunday. 

Meanwhile, 29 foreigners were evacuated from Siargao Island, a popular surfing destination in the south where the storm made landfall on Thursday, according to Mark Timbal, spokesman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

“They are all in good health condition based on the report of our coast guard,” Timbal told a virtual press conference. 

Those evacuated by the Philippine Coast Guard included citizens from the United States, France, Britain, Australia, Singapore, Denmark, the Czech Republic, China, Russia, Switzerland and Canada. 

The storm, known among locals as Odette, was the 15th to hit the Southeast Asian country this year. It dumped heavy rain and brought strong winds over large areas around the eastern seaboard of Mindanao in the southern portion of the country.

Odette reached super typhoon status on Thursday as it ripped roofs from homes, felled trees and toppled power lines. 

Vice President Leni Robredo said her team visited the heavily hit central Philippines over the weekend. 

“We’re in Cebu now. Signal is difficult. Devastation everywhere. Been traveling more than 2 hours already from the airport to Cebu City. Traffic is bad: Roads still being cleared of electric lines and posts that toppled down, and lines are long at gas & water refilling stations,” she wrote in a tweet.

“The ferocity of Typhoon Odette was very evident everywhere. So much destruction in both small and big structures,” Robredo told reporters. 

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Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo (foreground right) comforts a woman after inspecting damage caused by Typhoon Rai in the Dinagat Islands, Dec. 19, 2021. [Office of the Vice President via AP]

After reaching Siargao on Monday, the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) and government crews hooked up satellite phones to enable survivors of the storm to call their loved ones. 

“This communication facility will assist in the Philippine government’s communication and coordination with emergency responders as a crucial component in providing urgent life-saving relief and aid to the victims of Typhoon Rai,” the WFP said in a statement. 

Lucille Sering, the former chief of the national Climate Change Commission, said the storm destroyed entire communities in General Luna, a seaside area on Siargao whose restaurants and hotels cater to local and foreign tourists. 

“Initial reports show that communities in Typhoon Odette’s path suffered massive damage to their houses. Many families need emergency shelter materials, sleeping kits and solar lamps,” she said. “Construction materials are also urgently needed for immediate rehabilitation, specifically in Siargao, as the typhoon damaged houses and evacuation centers.”

Officials on the island said a gymnasium that was converted into an evacuation center before the storm had its roof blown off, adding that those who sheltered inside it were lucky to survive.

Elsewhere, the British humanitarian agency Oxfam claimed Maasin, a city in Southern Leyte province, became a virtual ghost town after 70 villages across the city were practically wiped off the map by the typhoon.

Maasin officials were appealing for food, water, hygiene kits, sleeping mats, tents and shelter materials for more than 9,000 families displaced by the storm. 

“Around 75 percent of the roads remain unpassable as of this time and there are no communication lines,” Oxfam said. 

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Soldiers carry infants through flood waters in Shah Alam, Malaysia, Dec. 20, 2021. [AP]

Malaysia floods

Meanwhile, several states in neighboring Malaysia were recovering from heavy flooding caused by torrential rains that began on Friday. The flooding displaced more than 63,000 and left at least 11 dead, according to government officials who expect the death toll to increase as waters recede.

More than 450 evacuation centers were opened in Kelantan, Pahang, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Selangor, Perak, Kuala Lumpur and Terengganu.

“It was an indirect effect of Typhoon Rai,” Azizan Abu Samah, senior research fellow at the Institute of Earth and Ocean Sciences, at the University of Malaya.

He said as the storm moved northeasterly toward Vietnam, moisture built up leading to the heavy rain across Peninsular Malaysia.

‘People need help’

In Manila, acting presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles said President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered immediate housing assistance to people whose homes were destroyed. 

“President Duterte underscored that while the effects of the typhoon are devastating even as the country continues its battle against COVID-19, the government must help because people need help,” Nograles said. 

In November 2013, more than 6,500 people died or were missing after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the central Philippines, causing massive storm surges that inundated coastal communities.  

Haiyan was the strongest storm to make landfall in the Philippines, and five years later many areas are feeling the long-term effects of the devastation. While lessons have been learned after that, and many areas built back better, Rai’s destructive power still overwhelmed many communities, officials said. 

Mark Navales in Cotabato, Philippines, Richel V. Umel in Iligan, Philippines, and Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.

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