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Storm deaths in Philippines surpass 500

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Friday, December 7, 2012 - 10:31 am

NEW BATAAN, Philippines — Rescuers were digging through mud and debris today to retrieve bodies strewn across a farming valley in the southern Philippines by a powerful typhoon. The death toll from the storm has surpassed 500, with more than 400 people missing.

More than 310,000 people have lost their homes since Typhoon Bopha struck Tuesday and are crowded inside evacuation centers or staying with relatives, relying on food and emergency supplies being rushed in by government agencies and aid groups.

“I want to know how this tragedy happened and how to prevent a repeat,” President Benigno Aquino III said during a visit to New Bataan town, the ground zero of the disaster, where ferocious winds and rains lashed the area.

Officials have confirmed 252 dead in Compostela Valley, including New Bataan, and 216 in nearby Davao Oriental province. Nearly 40 others died elsewhere and more than 400 are still missing.

Aquino told New Bataan residents gathered in the middle of toppled coconut trees and roofless houses that he was bent on seeking answers to improve their conditions and minimize casualties when natural disasters occur. Fatal storms and typhoons blowing from the Pacific are common in the Philippines, but most of them hit northern and central areas, and southern Mindanao Island is usually spared.

“We are going to look at what really happened. There are allegations of illegal mining, there are allegations of the force of nature,” said Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who traveled with Aquino. “We will find out why there are homes in these geohazard locations.”

The economic losses began to emerge today after export banana growers reported that 34,600 acres of export banana plantations, 18 percent of the total in Mindanao, were destroyed. The Philippines is the world's third-largest banana producer and exporter, supplying well-known brands such as Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte mainly to Japan and to South Korea, China, New Zealand and the Middle East.

Most of the casualties were killed in the valley surrounded by steep hills and crisscrossed by rivers. Flooding was so widespread that places people thought were safe, including two emergency shelters, became among the deadliest.