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Philippines storm victims feared tsunami and ran towards mudslide

Victims of a huge mudslide set off by Tropical Storm Nalgae in a coastal Philippines village that had once been devastated by a tsunami mistakenly thought a tidal wave was coming and ran towards higher ground and were buried alive, an official said (AP)
Victims of a huge mudslide set off by Tropical Storm Nalgae in a coastal Philippines village that had once been devastated by a tsunami mistakenly thought a tidal wave was coming and ran towards higher ground and were buried alive, an official said (AP)

Victims of a huge mudslide set off by a storm in a coastal Philippines village that was once devastated by a tsunami mistakenly thought a tidal wave was coming and ran towards higher ground and were buried alive by the boulder-laden deluge, an official has said.

At least 18 bodies, including those of children, have been dug out by rescuers in the vast muddy mound that now covers much of Kusiong village in southern Maguindanao province, among the hardest-hit by Tropical Storm Nalgae, which blew out of the north-western Philippines early on Sunday.

Officials fear 80 to 100 more people, including entire families, may have been buried by the deluge or washed away by flash floods in Kusiong between Thursday night and early Friday, according to Naguib Sinarimbo, the interior minister for a Muslim autonomous region run by former separatist guerrillas.

Philippines Asia Storm
Rescuers work in the mud in Maguindanao’s Datu Odin Sinsuat town, southern Philippines (AP)

Nalgae, which had a vast rain band, left at least 61 people dead in eight provinces and one city in the Philippine archipelago, including in Kusiong, and a trail of destruction in one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries.

The catastrophe in Kusiong, populated mostly by the Teduray ethnic minority group, was tragic because its more than 2,000 villagers have carried out disaster-preparedness drills every year for decades to brace for a tsunami because of a deadly history.

But they were not as prepared for the dangers that could come from Mount Minandar, where their village lies at the foothills, Mr Sinarimbo said.

“When the people heard the warning bells, they ran up and gathered in a church on a high ground,” he told the Associated Press, citing accounts by Kusiong villagers.

“The problem was, it was not a tsunami that inundated them but a big volume of water and mud that came down from the mountain.”

Philippines Asia Storm
Rescuers evacuate residents from a flooded village in Tuguegarao city, Cagayan province, northern Philippines (Philippine Coast Guard/AP)

In August 1976, an 8.1-magnitude earthquake and a tsunami in the Moro Gulf that struck around midnight left thousands of people dead and devastated coastal provinces in one of the deadliest natural disasters in Philippines history.

Lying between the Moro Gulf and 1,464ft (446m) Mount Minandar, Kusiong was among the hardest hit by the catastrophe and the village never forgot the tragedy.

Elderly villagers, who survived the tsunami and powerful earthquake, passed on the nightmarish story to their children, warning them to be prepared.

“Every year, they hold drills to brace for a tsunami. Somebody was assigned to bang the alarm bells and they designated high grounds where people should run to,” Mr Sinarimbo said.

“Villagers were even taught the sound of an approaching big wave based on the recollection of the tsunami survivors.

“But there wasn’t as much focus on the geo-hazards on the mountainside.”

Philippines Asia Storm
Residents walk beside remains of damaged homes in Maguindanao’s Datu Odin Sinsuat town, southern Philippines (AP)

Bulldozers and diggers were sent to Kusiong on Saturday, along with more than 100 rescuers from the army, police and volunteers from other provinces, but they were unable to dig at a spot where survivors said the church lay underneath because the muddy mound was still dangerously soft, officials said.

The national disaster-response agency reported 22 missing from the storm’s onslaught in several provinces.

Mr Sinarimbo said many of the missing in Kusiong were not included in the government’s official tally because entire families may have been buried and no member was left to provide names and details to authorities.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Almorato, who went to the mudslide-hit community on Saturday, said the muddy deluge buried about 60 rural houses in about 12 acres (5 hectares) of the community. He gave no estimate of how many villagers may have been buried but described the extent of the mudslide as “overwhelming” and said the night-time disaster may have unfolded quickly.

Philippines Asia Storm
Rescuers use an old refrigerator as a float as they evacuate residents from floodwater caused by Tropical Storm Nalgae in Hilongos, Leyte province (Philippine Coast Guard/AP)

A regional army commander, Major General Roy Galido, has been ordered to lead an emergency command centre to head search and retrieval work in Kusiong, officials said.

The stormy weather in a large swathe of the country prompted the coast guard to prohibit sea travel in dangerously rough seas as millions of Filipinos planned to travel over a long weekend for visits to relatives’ tombs and for family reunions on All Saints’ Day in the largely Roman Catholic nation.

More than 100 domestic and international flights were cancelled, Manila’s international airport was briefly closed amid stormy weather, and sea voyages in storm-whipped seas were prohibited by the coast guard, stranding thousands of passengers.

Floodwater swamped many provinces and cities, trapping some people on their roofs, and more than 700 houses were damaged. More than 168,000 people fled to evacuation camps.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr expressed disappointment over the high casualty toll in a televised meeting with disaster-mitigation officials on Saturday.

“We should have done better,” he said. “We were not able to anticipate that the volume of water will be that much so we were not able to warn the people and then to evacuate them out of the way of the incoming flash floods.”

About 20 typhoons and storms batter the Philippine archipelago each year. It is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a region along most of the Pacific Ocean rim where many volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur, making the nation one of the world’s most disaster-prone.