NEW BATAAN, Philippines (UPDATE) - Nearly 200,000 people are homeless and more than 300 dead after the Philippines suffered its worst typhoon this year, authorities said Thursday, reaching out for international aid to cope with the scale of the disaster.
Typhoon Pablo (international codename Bopha) plowed across the major southern island of Mindanao on Tuesday, flattening nearly everything across its 700-kilometer (435-mile) wide path with a blend of hurricane-force winds, floods and landslides.
Civil defense chief Benito Ramos said the government priority was to find 379 people still missing and to build temporary shelters for more than 179,000 others who have been packed into schools and government buildings for now.
"There is no time limit -- as long as it takes," he told reporters when asked when the government planned to end the search for the missing.
"We need tents to decongest the evacuation centers," Ramos added.
Shell-shocked survivors have been scrabbling through the rubble of their homes to find anything that can be recovered, as relatives search for missing family members among mud-caked bodies laid out in rows on tarpaulins.
Ramos said 325 people were confirmed dead and 411 others injured from the strongest cyclone to reach the Philippines this year.
The United States offered aid to the developing country, which is wearily familiar with natural disasters.
Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington offered its sympathies both for the Philippines and over damage caused to the island state of Palau as Bopha swept across the Pacific this week.
"Our embassies in Manila and Koror (Palau) have offered immediate disaster relief assistance, and we are working closely with authorities in both countries to offer additional assistance as needed," he said.
The Philippine government said typhoon gusts of up to 210 kilometers (130 miles) an hour had destroyed thousands of homes and other buildings, leaving residents with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said the government had sought help from the Swiss-based International Organisation for Migration to build temporary shelters for Bopha survivors.
"The priority is to build bunkhouses so that there will be shelter for them," he said on ABS-CBN television Thursday.
President Benigno Aquino has sent navy ships with food and other supplies to 150,000 people on Mindanao's east coast where three towns remain cut off by landslides and wrecked bridges.
Officials said many of the Mindanao victims were poor migrants who have flocked by the thousands to mountainous, landslide-prone sites like the towns of New Bataan and Monkayo to work at unregulated, small-scale gold mines.
Those two towns alone accounted for half of the deaths, the civil defence office said.
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said the national government had already declared many of these sites unsafe for human habitation due to deadly landslides that frequently hit the mines and nearby communities.
However, local authorities continue to issue mining permits and have proven unable to stem the growth of settlements on mountainsides and river valleys, he said on ABS-CBN.
"The local government must have the political will so that in the worst-case scenario, people in permanent danger zones must be forcibly evacuated," Paje said.
He said this policy had already been successfully adopted by Albay, a province southeast of Manila that is frequently hit with storms and volcanic eruptions.
"If you refuse to leave, the governor would arrive at your doorstep with the army and put you on board a military truck," Paje said.
Whole families washed away
Cabinet members Mar Roxas and Corazon Soliman, who flew to the south to inspect the damage, described scenes of utter devastation with thousands of houses ripped apart and corpses lying on the ground.
"These are whole families, six or seven names with the same surnames. It is saddening to think entire families have been washed away," Interior Secretary Roxas said.
"There is hardly any structure that is undamaged," he said in an interview over ABS-CBN television.
"We need to rush to these areas body bags, medicines, dry clothes and most importantly tents, because survivors are living out in the open," Social Welfare Secretary Soliman told AFP.
President Benigno Aquino said he hoped the country was learning from its frequent natural disasters, including the roughly 20 cyclones that hit each year.
"Any single casualty is a cause for distress. Our aim must always be about finding ways to lessen them," he told reporters in Manila, while pointing out the "big difference" in casualty counts compared with previous storms.
Aquino said the government was investigating why an army patrol base in New Bataan, which was washed away in the flash floods, had been located in a flood-prone area.
Officials were also checking reports that an evacuation centre there was among the structures wiped out in the floods, the president added.
"According to (survivors), there is a small lake on the mountain that gave way so the waters flowed down, not just along the rivers... but all across, like a waterfall, bringing a slurry that covered the whole town," Roxas said.
One shelter there had caved in during the typhoon, forcing the people inside to flee to an even smaller building, he said.
Pablo was the most powerful of the 16 storms to pummel the Philippines this year, though Mindanao is not usually on the front line.
Regional military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Paniza said three soldiers taking part in rescue operations were killed in New Bataan, with eight others from the same unit among the missing.
"It is quite sad and tragic. They were actually there to be ready to help our countrymen who may be in trouble," Roxas said.