MANILA — More than 2,300 people were reported killed and tens of thousands left homeless after a tropical storm triggered deadly flash floods and mudslides in the central Philippines, relief officials said Wednesday.
Officials said the death toll from Tuesday's Tropical Storm Thelma is likely to grow substantially. At least 1,500 people were missing and feared dead.
"We believe there will be many more dead," said Lourdes Masing, director of disaster preparation and relief for the Philippine Red Cross. "It's a major disaster."
Continuing rain and rough terrain hampered initial rescue and relief operations on the island of Leyte. Electricity was out and communications were largely cut. As a result, it took nearly 24 hours for word of the scope of the disaster to reach Manila.
"I never saw anything like it before," Emilio Osmena, a provincial governor who visited the port city of Ormoc by helicopter, said in a telephone interview from Cebu. "Bodies everywhere. Children, old women. It was really very sad."
He said villagers were scavenging lumber from flooded homes to build makeshift coffins for the dead. Dozens of corpses were stacked up on street corners awaiting pickup by wheelbarrows and trucks for burial in mass graves, he said.
"You'd see some family members digging up the mud, digging up the debris, looking for more bodies," Osmena said. "Some just sitting there with a blank stare, exhausted."
The storm heavily damaged eight towns in Leyte, including Tacloban, the provincial capital and hometown of Imelda Marcos. The former first lady, who returned from exile Monday, canceled a scheduled visit to the area.
Ironically, at least some of the floodwaters reportedly cascaded down from an overflow of the so-called Lake Imelda, which sits atop Mt. Tongongan near Ormoc, the worst-hit town.
Relief officials said a torrential downpour forced four rivers to overflow their banks, drowning throngs of people trying to reach higher ground. Mudslides roared off steep mountains denuded by loggers. High tides worsened the flooding.
Reports from Ormoc, a city of 150,000 about 340 miles southeast of Manila, said hundreds of bodies were seen floating in the flooded streets after fast-rising waters surged 8 to 12 feet deep in one hour.
The raging waters destroyed hundreds of homes, washed away five bridges, and left knee-deep mud in the streets and nearby farms.
Civil defense officials in Manila said 2,000 people were reported dead in Ormoc. Deaths in other areas, including the islands of Samar and Negros, brought the total to at least 2,337, said Dominador Farenas, duty officer at the Civil Defense Operations Center.
Thelma was relatively mild, with winds of up to 46 m.p.h., but it dropped more than 6 inches of rain in 24 hours.
Natural disasters that have struck the Philippines in the last two years:
July 16, 1990. Magnitude 7.7 earthquake strikes central and northern Luzon; nearly 1,700 people killed.
Nov. 14, 1990. Typhoon Mike hits central Philippines, killing at least 335 and sinking dozens of ships in Cebu, 350 miles south of Manila.
June 9, 1991. Mt. Pinatubo erupts, resulting in more than 800 deaths; 300,000 people forced from their homes.
Oct. 28, 1991. Typhoon Ruth batters northern Luzon, killing 65 people.
Nov. 6, 1991. Tropical Storm Thelma triggers landslides in central Philippines; officials report more than 2,300 people killed.