By Jeoffrey Maitem and Froilan Gallardo
Philippine rescuers reached more isolated areas ravaged by Typhoon Rai as the number of confirmed deaths rose to 31 as of Saturday evening – a total officials expect to increase.
The storm called Odette locally is the 15th so far this year and dumped heavy rain over large areas around the eastern seaboard of Mindanao in the southern portion of the country. It sliced through the Philippines, reaching super typhoon status by Thursday as it whipped up strong winds and brought heavy rains.
About half of the 31 confirmed deaths were in the central province of Cebu where houses were submerged almost totally by floodwaters, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
“We expect these figures will change as more reports come in,” said Mark Timbal, council spokesman.
Also of concern is the tear-dropped shaped surfing destination of Siargao island, a favorite destination for foreign and local tourists northeast of Mindanao, where the typhoon made landfall Thursday. The Philippine Coast Guard arrived at the island which had no electricity or telecommunications on Saturday.
There were no immediate reports of any casualties from Siargao, but social media sites have been filled with reports from families in Manila and elsewhere looking for loved ones who were reported to be vacationing on the island.
“Odette was so strong. Everything was destroyed,” said Ernesto Matugas, mayor of Surigao city in Surigao del Norte province, which has jurisdiction over the island.
Richard Gordon, a senator who serves as the Philippine Red Cross chairman, said teams are on the ground are providing immediate assistance.
“We are sending tower lights and pay loader trucks through our humanitarian caravan now in Surigao del Norte and Bohol island,” Gordon said.
In addition, the Eastern Mindanao Command said it deployed four Blackhawk helicopters along with navy boats to deliver relief goods and transport stranded residents to safer areas.
“The situation calls for a whole-of-nation approach in order to help our fellow Filipinos who are fighting for their survival during this calamitous event,” regional commander Lt. Gen. Greg Almerol told reporters.
“I saw firsthand the extent of the damage brought by the typhoon especially in Surigao del Sur and Surigao del Norte and the people who are residing there really need our help through provision of relief goods and other forms of assistance,” Almerol said.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said more than 330,000 people have been evacuated and were staying in nearly 700 evacuation centers.
“The onslaught of a typhoon cut essential lifelines, leaving 63 cities and municipalities without electricity, affecting 73 seaports and canceling over 160 domestic and international flights,” the U.N. agency said.
Environmental group Greenpeace, which reached Surigao city on Saturday, said the city bore the brunt of the storm and called for a national climate emergency.
“These typhoons will get worse, more unpredictable and destructive should (our institutions) remain merely reactionary to these climate crises,” Greenpeace executive director Yeb Saño said in a statement.
The Philippines sits on a typhoon belt and is hit by up to 20 tropical storms a year, some of them devastating.