NEW BATAAN, Philippines (3rd UPDATE) – Hundreds of thousands of survivors of a deadly Philippine typhoon crammed into shelters Friday, braving the stench of corpses as the government vowed action to prevent storm disasters.
Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) whipped the south on Tuesday, leaving at least 546 people dead and hundreds more missing in the deadliest natural disaster this year in a country that is regularly hit with quakes, floods and volcanic eruptions.
President Benigno Aquino flew into the southern island of Mindanao which bore the brunt of the storm to meet with bruised and grieving survivors.
"We want to find out why this tragedy happened and how to keep these tragedies from happening again," he told crowds after arriving by helicopter in the town of New Bataan which was mostly obliterated by the storm.
As he spoke, an excavator tore into the rubble of collapsed houses a short distance away, allowing rescue workers to pull out the bodies of two more victims. The parking lot was lined with decomposing corpses.
Among the 213,400 left homeless by the storm was Violy Saging, 38, huddled in a basketball gym in New Bataan, one of only a few buildings left standing in the town which is a center for the nation's banana and gold mining industries.
The typhoon "snatched our life away. There is nothing left, but we are hoping our relatives or friends will take us in," the farmer's wife told AFP.
Her eldest son's body was found wrapped around a coconut tree that he had climbed in a vain effort to flee the deluge. The youngest of three surviving children, a son aged three, has a high fever.
The gym's concrete floor was caked with mud, and part of its roof had been carried off by the cyclone, exposing the homeless to heavy rain that began pouring again Friday.
Families took turns to sleep on benches around the walls, and the 2,000 occupants had to share the building's two toilet stalls.
While hundreds of people have left the crowded evacuation centers, they still remained dependent on government for food and medical aid.
The government has appealed for immediate international aid for food, tents, water purification systems and medicine, and warned the homeless face months in evacuation centers before safe places can be found for new homes.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas told reporters more rescue workers, equipment and dogs trained to sniff out any people still alive beneath the rubble were on the way.
The government is also looking into why the advance warnings given ahead of the typhoon failed to prevent the heavy loss of life.
After his visit to New Bataan, Aquino said he had ordered government agencies to investigate why the death toll was so high.
"I want a concrete (explanation) of what happened and I want less and less dangers for Filipinos," he told reporters.
"They should not have built houses there," Roxas said, noting many of the mining areas which are a magnet for the nation's poor had been declared unsafe for habitation due to frequent deadly landslides.
Arthur Uy, the provincial governor, rejected suggestions local officials were to blame for failing to curb these dangerous practices.
"If you look at the map of Compostela Valley province, almost 80 percent are (hazardous zones)... Then what shall we do? Do we evacuate the entire province?" he told AFP.
Outside the gym, Medarda Opiso, 47, joined crowds trying to identify the bloated bodies laid out on the pavement.
Her daughter-in-law and granddaughter are missing, carried off by the wall of water and debris as her son worked their farm.
"My son is in despair. He is not talking to anyone. I am afraid he will lose it," she said.
But amid the despair there were also some poignant reunions.
Lucrecio Panamogan, 74, found his grown children huddled together with their families in a devastated school yard two days after the storm.
"I thought I had lost them," he told AFP, his eyes welling up.
"We may no longer have a house, or any possessions, but we still have each other."