NEW BATAAN, Philippines (AP) — Search and rescue operations following a typhoon that killed nearly 600 people in the southern Philippines have been hampered in part because many residents of this ravaged farming community are too stunned to assist recovery efforts, an official said Saturday.
With another nearly 600 people still missing after Typhoon Bopha struck on Tuesday, soldiers, police and volunteers from outside New Bataan have formed the bulk of the teams searching for bodies or signs of life under tons of fallen trees and boulders that were swept down from steep hills surrounding the town, said municipal spokesman Marlon Esperanza.
"We are having a hard time finding guides," he told The Associated Press. "Entire families were killed and the survivors are still in shock. They appear dazed. They can't move."
He said the rocks, mud, tree trunks and other rubble that litter the town have destroyed landmarks, making it doubly difficult to search places where houses once stood.
On Friday, bodies found jammed under fallen trees that could not be retrieved were marked with makeshift flags made of torn cloth so they can be easily spotted by properly equipped retrieval teams.
Government authorities have decided to bury unidentified bodies in a common grave after police forensic officers process them for future identification by relatives, Esperanza said.
At the town's damaged public market, which has been converted into a temporary funeral parlor, a few residents milled around about two dozen sealed white wooden coffins, some containing remains of unidentified victims.
One resident, Jing Maniquiz, 37, said she rushed home from Manila for the wake of two of her sisters, but could not bring herself to visit the place where her home once stood in Andap village. Her parents, a brother and nephew are missing.
"I don't want to see it," she said tearfully. "I can't accept that in just an instant I lost my mother, my father, my brother."
She said that at the height of the typhoon, her mother was able to send her a text message saying they were scared of the howling winds and the pelting rain. Her mother said that trees were falling on their house and its roof had been blown away.
Maniquiz said her family sought refuge at a nearby health center, but that was destroyed and they and dozens of others were swept away by the raging waters.
"We are not hopeful that they are still alive. We just want to find their bodies so that we will have closure," she said.
Mary Joy Adlawan, a 14-year-old high school student from the same village, was waiting for authorities to bury her 7-year-old niece.
Her parents, an elder sister, five nieces and a nephew are missing.
"I don't know what to do," she said as she fixed some flowers on the coffin.
Esperanza said heavy equipment, search dogs and chain saws had been brought in by volunteers from as far away as the capital, Manila, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) to the north.
Nearly 400,000 people, mostly from Compostela Valley and nearby Davao Oriental provinces, have lost their homes since Typhoon Bopha struck 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.
The typhoon plowed through the main southern island of Mindanao, crossed the central Philippines and headed to Vietnam, but it has lingered over the South China Sea for the past two days.
On Saturday, the weather bureau raised storm warnings over the western part of the main northern island of Luzon after the storm veered northeast. It said weather systems to the east and west had sandwiched Bopha, slowing it down and forcing it to make a U-turn and head toward the western part of the northern Philippines. Forecasters warned that the waters off Luzon would be "rough to very rough."
President Benigno Aquino III visited New Bataan, ground zero of the disaster, and late Friday declared a "state of national calamity," which would focus government efforts on rescue and rehabilitation, control prices of basic commodities in typhoon-affected areas and allow the quick release of emergency funds.
In Bangkok, Thailand, where she made a stop after a visit to Myanmar, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said the Philippines had appealed for international aid. She said many countries have already provided assistance, but did not specify the amounts.
Officials say 276 people were killed in Compostela Valley, including 155 in New Bataan, and 277 in Davao Oriental. About 40 people died elsewhere and nearly 600 are still missing, 411 from New Bataan alone.
Davao Oriental Gov. Corazon Malanyaon told the AP that clean water and shelter were the biggest problem in three of the worst-hit towns in her province facing the Pacific Ocean, where the typhoon blew in from.
She said she has imposed a curfew in the affected towns and ordered police to guard stores and shops to stop looting.
The economic losses began to emerge Friday after export banana growers reported that 14,000 hectares (34,600 acres) of export banana plantations, equal to 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 also to South Korea, China, New Zealand and the Middle East.
Stephen Antig, executive director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association, said losses had been conservatively estimated at 12 billion pesos ($300 million), including 8 billion pesos ($200 million) in damaged fruits that had been ready for harvest, and the rest for the cost of rehabilitating farms, which will take about a year.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Hrvoje Hranjski in Manila and Francisco Rosario in Bangkok contributed to this report.