Cagayan de Oro City— President Aquino yesterday declared a state of national calamity and vowed to mobilize assistance for victims of the worst storm to hit his presidency.
“I need to ask myself—Did the government do enough to prevent this kind of a tragedy? I don’t think I can accept that we have done everything,” Mr. Aquino told evacuees.
“I know we could have done more.”
The latest count listed 957 dead and 49 missing and is set to climb further as additional bodies are being recovered from the sea and mud in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro cities.
Aquino stopped by the Cagayan de Oro Central School during a lightning visit to the disaster zone four days after Tropical Storm “Sendong” struck.
More than 340,000 people in 63,000 families have been displaced, according to the National Disaster Risk and Reduction Management Council.
Officials have set up 62 evacuation centers, half of which are in the worst-hit cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.
“I do not accept that everything had been done. I know that we can do more. We must determine what really happened,” Aquino said.
“Must this end in tragedy? We knew that (storm) was coming. There should have been efforts to avoid the destruction.”
“Our national government will do its best to prevent a repeat of this tragedy,” Aquino told residents who came out to greet him.
He said there would be an assessment of what went wrong and why so many people died, if there was ample warning that a storm would sweep through the area and why people living along riverbanks and close to the coast had not been moved to safety.
“My concern right now is specifically those missing,” said Aquino, who put the number at 49.
“Let us exhaust all possible means to try and find all of these missing individuals,” he told national and local officials at the base of the Philippine Air Force Tactical Operations Group 10.
The Philippine government shipped more than 400 coffins yesterday as relief agencies rushed to help.
A handful of morgues are overwhelmed and running out of coffins and formaldehyde for embalming. Aid workers appealed for bottled water, blankets, tents and clothes for many of 45,000 displaced in crowded evacuation centers.
Navy sailors in Manila loaded a ship with 437 white, wooden coffins to help local authorities handle the staggering number of dead. Also on the way were containers with thousands of water bottles.
Most of the dead were women and children who drowned Friday night when flash floods triggered by a tropical storm gushed into homes while people were asleep.
A Briton was the first foreigner reported dead in the flooding, according to the British Embassy in Manila. It didn’t provide details.
The Philippine National Red Cross listed 713 deaths and 563 missing.
The President also stopped at Iligan and Dumaguete cities to inspect the devastation.
“We will be assisting not only Cagayan (de Oro) and Iligan, but also Negros Oriental and Ilocos Norte, Iloilo. We’d like to assure you that we are going to fine-tune all of the systems in place so that we can prevent similar tragedy from happening.”
The President said the calamity funds stood at P1.17 billion. He said he declared the state of national calamity to start the mechanisms from which the government could get additional relief funding.
“We can get P3 million from the (Asian Development Bank) while there are P500 million on standby that the World Bank would loan in case the funds that have long been prepared for these kinds of calamity run short,” he said.
“There are also offers of help from Japan, America, Australia, Russia, China and other countries,” he added.
Among the urgent things on the list: A vital bridgeway, which will cost P54 million; the reconstruction and repair of water systems, P90 million; and a thousand automatic water level sensors for 18 major river basins, P150 million.
Many blame the high death toll to the lack of an early flood warning system. The floodwaters rose swiftly, swallowing and devastating communities.
“The core shelter for both Cagayan (de Oro) and Iligan will be about P150 million,” Mr. Aquino said.
“Plus, part of the reason that we’re here is really to assess the need for the houses, permanent houses. We don’t have an estimate for that yet but there’s an initial 1,000 houses earmarked for Cagayan from the (National Housing Authority),” he added.
The President said that he had formed a multiagency task force that will look into ways to improve the systems to alleviate the effects of natural disasters.
“There is also going be a fact-finding team to determine exactly where we can still augment the systems and procedures in place so that there are no casualties of this magnitude ever again,” he said.
“I think all of us are aware exactly of certain situations that have happened, deforestation which has always been a problem,” the President said.
“We have a geohazard map that identified Isla de Oro as a place that will be a catch basin of floodwaters when a storm comes. Because we know the topography, we have also identified places where the waters will quickly flow,” he said.
“Why were there still residents in these places?” he added. “We don’t have any intention of fixing blame at this time. But it is our obligation to find out what happened.”
Mr. Aquino said he had instructed the Department of Interior and Local Government and the Philippine National Police to prevent residents from returning to the danger areas—such riverbanks.
“Going back to danger areas should no longer be permitted. I want that very clear . No settlement in portions already described as extremely dangerous like Isla de Oro, and neighboring barangays,” the President said.
“To prevent a repeat of this tragedy, we need to know where there were shortcomings, who were at fault and how these should be made accountable,” he said, adding that he had ordered Mujiv Hataman, officer in charge of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, to stop illegal logging.
The U.N. food agency flew in three tons of high-protein biscuits together with water tanks, blankets, tarpaulins and tents for some 75,000 people. Shortage of water was still a major problem in the two cities.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the flooding, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
“The United Nations and its partners stand ready to support the government in responding to this disaster,” the deputy spokesman added. INQUIRER and AP