Philippines Strains to Respond to Flood

A medical patient trapped during the flooding is evacuated by navy personnel after the floodwater subsides allowing big trucks to enter the area, Sept. 28, 2009 in suburban Cainta, east of Manila, Philippines.
AP Photo/Pat Roque
Updated at 12:51 p.m. Eastern:

Victims of floods in the Philippines trudged through ankle-deep sludge to crowded relief centers in search of scarce food and clean water Tuesday, as the government strained to distribute supplies, dig out the sprawling capital from under the mud and prevent looting.

The toll from Tropical Storm Ketsana and the ensuing floods — the Southeast Asian country's worst in four decades — climbed to 246 dead, with 38 still missing.

Ketsana, which wreaked havoc in the Philippines on Saturday, strengthened further and crashed into central Vietnam on Tuesday, killing at least 23 people who drowned, were caught in mudslides or hit by falling trees, officials said. Some 170,000 people were evacuated from the path of the storm.

"The rivers are rising, and many homes are flooded, and several mountainous districts have been isolated by mudslides," said Nguyen Minh Tuan, a provincial disaster official in Vietnam.

The storm weakened as it moved inland and approached Laos, but river levels were still rising, and more rains are forecast for the region Wednesday.

More bad weather may be headed for the Philippines, too, forecasters said, prompting the government to consider evacuating some regions where people have only just started returning. But on Tuesday, the weather in Manila was mild, and floodwaters had mostly receded enough for people to move around and assess the damage.

CBS News' Barnaby Lo reports that the number of people seeking shelter in the Philippines jumped to its current level - officially 374,890 - from 115,000 in just 24 hours.

In Marikina, a suburban district of the capital, police used forklifts to remove mud-caked cars stalled along the road. Elsewhere, people used shovels and brooms to muck brown mud from their homes and businesses, some of which were inundated up to the second floor.

Victims clutching bags of belongings lined up for hours at relief centers for bottled water, boiled eggs and packets of instant noodles.

Large parts of the cluster of suburban municipalities that make the greater Manila area were affected by the storm, but flooding was worst around the Pasig River that cuts through it, including wealthy suburbs and shanty towns.

Thick, gooey mud lay in the streets in some places, while others were still under a foot or two (half a meter) of water. But across town, it was business as usual in the main downtown business and tourist district, which escaped largely unscathed.

Conditions in many areas, however, remained squalid.

In the Bagong Silangan area of the capital, about 150 people sheltered on a covered basketball court that had been turned into a makeshift evacuation center for storm victims. People lay on pieces of cardboard amid piles of garbage and swarming flies, their belongings crammed into bags nearby.

Seventeen white wooden coffins, some of them child-sized, lined one part of the court. A woman wept quietly beside one coffin.

Sensitive to criticism that her administration was unprepared to respond to the disaster, Arroyo launched a public relations offensive to show her administration was doing all it could to help

even while conceding the country needed international aid to deal with crisis.

She opened part of the presidential palace as a relief center, and hundreds of people received food and made free phone calls to friends and relatives.

Presidential aide Hermogenes Esperon said up to 500 victims would be given blankets and other supplies and allowed to stay in the palace grounds, after they had undergone security checks, starting with about 50 people on Tuesday night.

At another center, Arroyo's executive chef cooked gourmet food for victims.

"We're responding to the extent we can to this once-in-a-lifetime typhoon emergency," Arroyo said in a statement.

The homes of almost 2 million people were inundated, the government said. Nearly 380,000 have sought shelter in relief centers. The government has declared a "state of calamity" in Manila and 25 storm-hit provinces and estimated the damage at $97 million.

Even as the government struggles to respond to Ketsana, it is also trying to prepare for another storm. Tropical Storm Parma was about 800 miles (1,280 kilometers) southeast of the Philippines late Tuesday and heading slowly toward it, bringing the threat of more heavy rain, Nilo Frisco of the government weather agency said.

"There is sense of extreme urgency that we prepare," National Disaster Coordinating Council chairman Gilberto Teodoro told reporters.

Washington had pledged $100,000 for the relief efforts, and U.S. Navy personnel were helping with search and rescue, the Foreign Affairs Department said Tuesday. China, Japan, Singapore and Australia have also pledged extra aid, and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sent a message that help would come from the world body, too.

Earlier, at a nationally televised meeting of top officials to address the crisis, Arroyo said more police should be deployed to respond to reports of looting.

In Marikina, district police Chief Supt. Benhur de Manteli said rumors of looting were being spread by phone text message, though there was no evidence it was widespread.

"The rumors were circulating because some scavengers were salvaging from the debris, but not really a case of looters going inside houses," Manteli told the AP.

Some victims said what food and other aid was being handed out came largely from private donations, and complained they had seen no government aid or officials in their districts since Saturday's storm.

Pat Uy, a 38-year-old store owner, said she huddled with her family for almost a day in her third-floor apartment in Marikina as the waters rose, and received no help despite repeated calls. Now, the only government aid available was more a walk of more than a mile (2 kilometers) to a nearby district.

"The government should not expect us to go to Katipunan to get the relief supplies," said Pat Uy, whose gift store was flooded, destroying her stock. "They should bring them here."