TYPHOON ‘OMPONG’ FURY: 100 Feared Buried Alive in Benguet Landslides

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TYPHOON OMPONG AFTERMATH.  President Duterte leads Cabinet members and other officials in assessing the damages of typhoon Ompong and planning immediate assistance to victims at the Cagayan provincial capitol in Tuguegarao City. In another photo, rescuers retrieve a body buried by landslide in Itogon, Benguet. Some 100 people are feared dead in the landslides. (Malacanang/ABS-CBN photos)

By ALFRED GABOT, FRANCO REGALA and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE

LA TRINIDAD, Benguet — President Rodrigo Duterte convened his Cabinet in Tuguegarao City, Cagayan’s capital, and then in Laoag City in Ilocos Norte last Sunday, September 16, hours after Typhoon Ompong (international name: Mangkhut) battered Northern Philippines, leaving over 70 people dead and dozens buried alive in a landslide in a mine site and other areas in Benguet alone and destroying some P25 billion worth of infrastructures, properties and agricultural crops.

A day after inspecting the damages in Cagayan and Ilocos Norte, Duterte flew to Benguet to check on the damages and needs of the province, met with the families of the victims of typhoon Ompong and distributed P25,000 worth of goods and burial assistance and another P20,000 in cash to the families. Then he flew to Isabela province which also suffered heavy losses from the typhoon where he assessed the damages with officials.

Overall, various government agencies issued conflicting reports on number of casualties, but was clear was “Ompong,” the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year, could be blamed for over 100 deaths, mostly from the Cordillera region which includes Baguio City and Benguet province.

The official death toll climbed to 81 on Wednesday, September 19, as more bodies were dug up in a mine site in Itogon, Benguet and could hit triple digits, authorities said, citing rescuers and searchers.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) said up to 70 persons remain unaccounted for following the onslaught of Typhoon Ompong.

In its consolidated partial report, PNP spokesman Senior Supt. Benigno Durana Jr. said the death toll stands at 81, with 71 wounded.

“Ompong” swamped farm fields mostly planted to rice, corn and vegetables in Cagayan Valley, the biggest rice and corn producers, and smashed houses and infrastructures like the Tuguegarao airport and provincial capitol building and toppled electric and cable posts resulting to massive blackout and communications stoppage that affected millions of residents.

“From the list I saw 59 people are still missing (at Itogon),” Administrator Ricardo Jalad of the Office of the Civil Defense told reporters. “If you add that to those already recovered it’s possible the toll could top 100.”

As hundreds of Army soldiers and rescuers from the Philippine National Police, Bureau of Fire, Bureau of Jail Management, and volunteers are in rush to dig up those buried in landslides, international assistance from the United States, Australia, United Nations and the European Union poured in.

Others which committed assistance were France, Canada, China, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.

International organizations like the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management, the European Union and United Nations agencies such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Children’s Fund, and the World Food Programme have also offered aid to the typhoon victims.

As of Thursday, September 20, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported that the number typhoon-affected Filipinos already increased to 1.43 million, at least 139,609 of whom are being served inside and outside evacuation centers.

The damage and losses to the agriculture sector reached P16.76 billion as of Wednesday, September 19, according to Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Emmanuel Pinol.

According to the department’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Operation Center, the damage and losses covered a total of 636,908 hectares of agricultural areas, with an estimated production loss of 731,294 metric tons.

Meanwhile,  Britain’s Queen Elizabeth IIas sent the Philippines a message of condolences in the aftermath of Typhoon Ompong (Mangkhut).

In her message to President Duterte dated September 18, the Queen said: “I was deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life and the devastation caused by Typhoon Mangkhut. Prince Philip and I send our sincere condolences to all the victims, to those who have lost loved ones, and to those who have seen their homes and property destroyed.”

“My thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by these tragedies,” she added.

President Duterte expressed his sympathies to families who lost their loved ones during the onslaught of Typhoon Ompong even as thousands of people in Cagayan Valley, Ilocos provinces and Cordilleras were still without power and communication at press time.

“I share the grief of those who lost loved ones,” Duterte said during his three-day swing in the typhoon ravaged areas.

“Those we call in the unforeseen events, in insurance, this is an act of God. I don’t know how it can be an act of God but that is the term used by the insurance,” he added.

The death toll in the mine site landslides in Itogon could still rise as 42 to 100 people remain missing said Itogon Mayor Victor Palangdan who feared  that those missing could already dead.

At press time, rescuers have retrieved at least 20 bodies from a bunkhouse buried in a landslide in  Itogon  as hundreds of police, soldiers, and volunteers continue to dig through thick mud in desperate move to recover more bodies.

Other reports from various provincial disaster offices in Northern Luzon, Bicol and Manila put the number of deaths from typhoon Ompong at  over 100. Of these deaths, 39 were from Barangay Ucab, Itogon alone; 25 in the rest of Itogon town; nine from Baguio City; two in La Trinidad, one from Tuba, one in Kalinga; six from Mountain Province; four from Nueva Vizcaya; one from Ilocos; six from Cagayan province; two from Nueva Ecija; one from Albay and three from Metro Manila.

Some reports said up to 100 more persons may have become victims in the landslide. At least 74 remain missing in Region 1 (Ilocos) and 2 (Cagayan Valley) following the typhoon.

The death toll in the Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR) due to Typhoon “Ompong”  climbed to 74 on Tuesday, September 18, while another 68 are still missing, according to the Cordillera Regional Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (CRDRRMC).

The CRDRRMC said 11 people died in Baguio City; one in Kalinga; six in Mountain Province; one in Tuba, Benguet; three in La Trinidad, Benguet; and 46 in Itogon, Benguet.

Four people were also reported to be still missing in Baguio City and 64  in Benguet.

Majority of the dead and missing in Itogon town were in Barangay Ucab and Loakan, where massive landslides happened.

CRDRRMC chairman and Office of the Civil Defense Cordillera (OCD) Regional Director Ruben Carandang said all DRRMCs in the region remain on red alert.

Power and communications were also shut down by the typhoon in several provinces, affecting millions of people.

Carandang added that Baguio City, Benguet and other parts of the region experienced a rainfall of over 1,600 millimeters (mm) in August, exceeding the average rainfall amounting to over 600 millimeters for the said month.

The average rainfall of September is 550 mm but on Saturday alone, 760 mm of rainfall poured over these areas and drenched and already saturated soil, causing several landslides, flooding in some areas and swelling of the river.

The Philippine Army said rescuers have retrieved a total of 39 bodies from a collapsed bunkhouse in Itogon,  as the death toll from  Typhoon “Ompong”  ballooned to over 100 across the country.

Authorities gave conflicting figures on fatalities from a landslide that crushed the bunkhouse at the Itogon mining site.

Lt. Col. Louie Villanueva, Army spokesman, said as of Tuesday’s report, there were 39 bodies recovered by military responders in Ucab village, where the bunkhouse, used as a worship house, collapsed.

“Rescuers are now facing difficulties in removing boulders of rocks and the hardening mud due to the warming weather. In this condition, the troops are working relentlessly for a speedy retrieval and rescue operations in the hopes of saving more lives,” Villanueva said in a statement.

Itogon Mayor  Palandang said the deaths could have been avoided had the people in the mine site followed orders for pre-emptive evacuation in the area.

“We tried to enforce also the forced evacuation, but they also refused to do it. Some were being dragged already but still, they were resisting,” he said.

Villanueva, meanwhile, said the Army has deployed the 525th Engineer Combat Battalion and K-9 military working dogs to assist in rescue and retrieval operations in Ucab, Itogon, Benguet, where authorities are struggling to find 65 more persons.

The engineering battalion is composed of six search and rescue retrieval teams with heavy equipment and specialized tools while the K-9 unit can “also be utilized for complex emergencies to save human lives,” he added.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) also on Tuesday said a total of 218,492 families or 893,844 persons were still affected by effects of the typhoon, which exited Philippine territory over the weekend.

Of the number, NDRRMC spokesman Edgar Posadas said a total of 61,709 families or 236,060 people were still in evacuation centers established in Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, Mimaropa, Cordillera Administrative Region and Metro Manila.

He said 146 international and 135 domestic flights had been canceled due to Ompong but most flights have since resumed.