'Pablo' death toll now at 274

The death toll from Typhoon Pablo jumped to 274 Wednesday with hundreds more missing, as rescuers battled to reach areas cut off by floods and mudslides. Typhoon Pablo (international name: Bopha) slammed into Mindanao Tuesday, toppling trees and blowing away thousands of homes with 210-kph (130-mph) gusts before easing and heading towards the South China Sea. A total of 253 people died in and around the gold-rush mountain towns of New Bataan and Monkayo due to typhoon-spawned landslides and flash floods there, civil defense chief Benito Ramos told reporters. Twenty-one people were killed in other parts of Mindanao and the central islands, he added. Cabinet members Mar Roxas and Corazon Soliman, who flew to the south to inspect the damage, described scenes of utter devastation with thousands of houses ripped apart and corpses lying on the ground. "These are whole families, six or seven names with the same surnames. It is saddening to think entire families have been washed away," Interior Secretary Roxas said. "There is hardly any structure that is undamaged," he said in an interview. "We need to rush to these areas body bags, medicines, dry clothes and most importantly tents, because survivors are living out in the open," Social Welfare Secretary Soliman told Agence France-Presse. Bodies caked in mud were being transported on the back of army trucks and laid out in rows on tarpaulins where relatives searching for missing family members broke down as they identified the shrouded corpses of loved ones. Shell-shocked survivors scrabbled through the rubble of their homes to find anything that could be recovered among a surrounding wasteland of flattened banana and coconut trees. Ramos said 279 other people were still missing, while 339 others were treated for injuries. Death toll In its 6:30 p.m. update, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported that only 26 of the 274 fatalities have so far been identified, but that most of the additions to the list of deaths were from Surigao del Sur, which has been placed under a state of calamity, as well as Cebu, Negros Oriental, Southern Leyte, Misamis Oriental, Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley. The typhoon has so far affected 45,899 families or 217,850 people in 444 villages in 131 towns and 18 cities in 22 provinces. Of those affected, 35,603 families or 167,294 people are being served in 372 evacuation centers. 'A cause for distress' Meanwhile, rescue personnel still struggled to reach areas cut off by the storm where many more casualties might be found. President Benigno Aquino said he hoped the country was learning from its frequent natural disasters, including the roughly 20 tropical cyclones that hit each year. "Any single casualty is a cause for distress. Our aim must always be about finding ways to lessen them," he told reporters in Manila, while pointing out the "big difference" in casualty counts compared with previous storms. The more than 500 dead or missing in Pablo was still below the 1,200 deaths from tropical storm Sendong (Washi), which hit in December 2011, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless in Mindanao, he said. Aquino said the government was investigating why an army patrol base in New Bataan, which was washed away in the flash floods, had been located in a flood-prone area. Officials were also checking reports that an evacuation centre there was among the structures wiped out in the floods, the president added. "According to [survivors], there is a small lake on the mountain that gave way so the waters flowed down, not just along the rivers... but all across, like a waterfall, bringing a slurry that covered the whole town," Roxas said. One shelter there had caved in during the typhoon, forcing the people inside to flee to an even smaller building, he said. Pablo was the most powerful of the 16 storms to pummel the Philippines this year, though Mindanao is not usually on the front line. Regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Paniza said three soldiers taking part in rescue operations were killed in New Bataan, with eight others from the same unit among the missing. "It is quite sad and tragic. They were actually there to be ready to help our countrymen who may be in trouble," Roxas said. Infrastructure damage The NDRRMC also reported that as of Wednesday, 4,388 passengers have been stranded in the ports, along with 600 rolling cargo, 102 vessels and 53 motor bancas. At least 46 domestic flights were also canceled on Wednesday. The NDRRMC also estimated the cost of damage to infrastructure and agriculture at P178.34 million at least, including P172.6 million in infrastructure, P2,520,500 in agriculture, and P3.220 million in private property. Two bridges and 12 roads were damaged, but power has been restored in Central Visayas except Dumaguete City and Mabinay in Negros Oriental. As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, there was still no water supply in San Francisco and Poblacion in Esperanza, Agusan del Sur. DOH alert raised The Department of Health also raised its alert status in areas affected by the typhoon, according to the NDRRMC. "DOH-HEMS raised the Code Alert from Code White to Code Blue and sent continuous weather updates to all regions affected, through the SMART Infoboard," it said. Covered by the directive were health offices in Bicol, Western and Eastern Visayas, and Regions 9, 10, 11, 12, Caraga, and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. According to the DOH, Code White is adopted when there is a forecast cyclone or a national holiday. Emergency service personnel at the hospital dorm shall be placed on call status. Emergency medicines should be stocked and made available. Code Blue is proclaimed when 20 to 50 casualties are expected or are suddenly brought to the hospital. It entails on-scene response and surgrical teams, mental health professionals, anesthesiology residents, toxicologists, OR nurses, social workers, dietary personnel, and security force. — with a report from Agence France-Presse/BM, GMA News