DARAGA, Philippines – President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of national calamity Sunday as the top Red Cross official estimated more than 1,000 people have been killed after a massive typhoon unleashed walls of black mud on entire villages.
"We're estimating the casualties could reach 1,000, perhaps more," Sen. Richard Gordon, who heads the local Red Cross, told Radio DZBB.
Gordon said at present the Red Cross has recorded a death toll of at least 406, with 398 others missing, based on figures provided by mayors of devastated towns in the eastern Philippines, where Typhoon Durian hit with of up to 165-mph winds and torrential rains on Thursday.
Government figures placed the number of dead at 324, with 302 missing and 438 injured.
Arroyo declared a state of national calamity, allowing the government to more rapidly release funds needed to bolster search and rescue efforts. She was scheduled to fly for a second time to worst-hit Albay province on Tuesday, spokesman Ignacio Bunye said.
Typhoon Durian was the fourth major storm to hit the Philippines in four months. It buffeted the Mayon volcano with so much wind and rain that ash and boulders cascaded down in walls of black mud that swamped entire villages — a scene Gordon described as a "war zone."
"There are many unidentified bodies. There could be a lot more hidden below. Whole families may have been wiped out," Gordon told The Associated Press by telephone.
No survivors are known to have been pulled from farmlands buried by volcanic mud, debris and boulders and hopes for finding any have virtually vanished.
After surveying the blackened wasteland, Spanish rescue volunteer David Quintana was pessimistic. "If it would be like this, chances are zero because you cannot breath, there is no air," he said.
The first funerals took place Saturday evening and several more bodies were buried in mass graves Sunday as bodies rapidly decomposed in the tropical heat.
All but two dozen of the deaths occurred in Albay, with 165 in the town of Guinobatan, swamped by floodwaters in the foothills of Mayon volcano southeast of the capital, Manila.
Four other provinces reported fatalities, but accurate casualty figures were hard to come by because power lines and phone services were down.
In some places, searchers found only body parts.
In Albay's battered capital of Legazpi City, residents lined up to buy drinking water, gasoline and food. Panic gripped one community due to rumors of an impending tsunami, but officials quickly reassured people that no tsunami-triggering earthquake had occurred.
Glen Rabonza, an official helping oversee disaster-response efforts, said army troops and miners were helping search for missing villagers in Albay, where 52 tons of relief goods, medicine, body bags and other aid have been flown in by air force C-130 cargo planes.
Houses along the Yawa River in Padang, about 10 kilometers (7 miles) from Legazpi, were buried under 1 1/2 meters (5 feet) of mud, with only roofs protruding. Some of the bodies had been washed out to sea, then swept by currents to the shores of an adjacent town.
Glenn Lorica, 22, said his family's house in Albay's Daraga town was wiped out by a torrent of mud, uprooted trees, rocks and debris, sweeping him and loved ones away.
Lying badly bruised on a Legazpi hospital bed, he recalled the nightmarish ordeal that only he and a younger sister survived. Seven other members of his family are still missing.
"I told myself that if I would die, so be it," Lorica said, recalling how he struggled to stay afloat in the rampaging mud flow by grabbing hold of trees while being battered by rocks and other debris.
He said he struggled to remove his clothes, apparently to avoid being entangled in floating trees.
"In our family, only me and my sister survived," he told The AP. His father, mother, two sisters, an aunt, uncle and a niece remained missing.
Australia conveyed its condolences through Ambassador Tony Hely, and made an initial pledge of US$780,000 (euro589,000) in immediate humanitarian relief. Canada earlier donated US$876,000 (euro660,000), while Japan said it would send US$173,000; euro130,000).