Tropical Storm Chanchu gained strength Sunday as it headed away from the Philippines, where it killed 37 people and left thousands homeless, officials said.

Most of the dead were aboard a ferry that sank near central Masbate island Friday after the skipper ignored a coast guard ban on sea travel. At least 26 people drowned, according to Neri Amparo, an official of the National Disaster Coordinating Council.

Coast guard boats and fishermen rescued 18 other passengers of the Mae Ann and were searching for at least two others who were reported missing by their families. Authorities have not found the ferry's passenger manifest and were unsure if there were other victims, Amparo said.

"This deadly accident could have been avoided if some people were not as hardheaded and heeded the coast guard's storm warnings," Amparo said.

Ten others died from drowning or after being struck by trees or concrete walls in three provinces and a Manila suburb that were swamped by floods and battered by strong winds. A fisherman drowned when his boat sank off central Iloilo province, officials said.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pledged to help victims and appealed to the public to heed storm warnings. She ordered a check on giant billboards built above congested communities in the capital after a number were destroyed, damaging two cars and at least one house.

Organizers were forced to shift the venue of an annual retreat of trade ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations from the popular palm-fringed resort island of Boracay, about 190 miles southeast of Manila, after the storm disrupted flights and knocked out power in nearby provinces. The meetings, which start Monday, were moved to Manila.

The storm made landfall on eastern Samar island late Thursday, sliced westward across the center of the archipelago and blew toward the South China Sea on Saturday, leaving rain and bad weather in its wake.

An air force crew postponed helicopter flights requested by officials to survey storm damage in the provinces of Batangas and Mindoro south of Manila due to lingering winds, low clouds and poor visibility, said air force spokesman Maj. Augusto de la Pena.

Chanchu was roaring over the South China Sea, about 225 miles southwest of Manila, with gusts of up to 93 mph by mid-Sunday, according to Manila's weather agency.

More than 42,000 people were affected by floods, landslides and heavy rains, including nearly 8,000 who had to be moved to government evacuation centers in five central rural regions where the storm passed, officials said.

Strong winds and rain triggered floods, landslides and toppled trees and commercial billboards, destroying 600 houses and damaging 3,500 others, officials said.

A ferry with 713 passengers ran aground as it sought shelter early Saturday morning off Tablas island, about 165 miles southeast of Manila. On Friday, the empty ferry MV Northern Samar sank after it was buffeted by waves while moored at a port in Tabaco town, 200 miles southeast of Manila.

Countrywatch:Philippines