MANILA, Philippines – Tens of thousands of villagers in the southern Philippines spent their Christmas morning in emergency shelters Monday as the region dealt with the aftermath of a powerful storm that left more than 150 people dead.
Tropical Storm Tembin unleashed landslides and flash floods mostly in the hard-hit provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur and on the Zamboanga Peninsula. It strengthened into a typhoon before blowing out of the country Sunday into the South China Sea toward Vietnam.
The death toll stood at 164 on Monday afternoon with another 171 people missing, Marina Marasigan of the government's disaster-response agency said at a news conference. More than 97,000 people remain in 261 evacuation centers across the south, while nearly 85,000 more people are displaced and staying elsewhere.
Intense rainfall in the mountains most likely caused landslides that blocked rainwater, Marasigan said. When the naturally formed dams broke from the pressure, torrents of water smashed into the villages below.
Officials warned villagers in accident-prone areas to evacuate early as Tembin approached and the government wanted to find out what caused the widespread storm deaths, Marasigan said. She added that it was difficult to move people from homes shortly before Christmas.
"We don't want to be dragging people out of their homes days before Christmas but it's best to convince them to quietly understand the importance of why they are being evacuated," Marina said.
The deaths and devastation inflicted by Tembin were among a series of disasters that hit the predominantly Roman Catholic nation at the peak of travel and Christmas holiday preparations.
An inter-island ferry sank off northeastern Quezon province Thursday after being lashed by fierce winds and big waves, leaving at least five people dead. More than 250 passengers and crewmen were rescued.
Earlier in the week, another tropical storm left more than 50 people dead and 31 others missing, mostly due to landslides, and damaged more than 10,000 houses in the central Philippines.
Among the areas battered by Tembin was Marawi, a lakeside city in Lanao del Sur that is still recovering from a five-month siege by pro-Islamic State group extremists that left more than 1,000 people dead and displaced the entire population of about 200,000 people.
The Philippines is battered by about 20 typhoons and storms each year, making the archipelago that lies on the Pacific typhoon belt one of the world's most disaster-prone countries.