MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday visited a town in Albay province that this year's strongest storm pummeled, following criticism on his absence from public view during the disaster that destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 20 people.
Duterte led an aerial survey and later appeared before residents of Guinobatan town, where erstwhile super typhoon Rolly spawned landslides of volcanic ash from nearby Mt. Mayon.
The President, 75, will seek a probe into quarrying operations in Guinobatan, following complaints about it from residents, said Sen. Christopher Go, Duterte's former aide who was with him during the trip.
Duterte's aerial survey also passed over Catanduanes, where Rolly first made landfall and has cut off power and telco lines, said Go.
Rolly (international name: Goni) was a "super typhoon" when it made landfall in Catanduanes dawn of Sunday, packing maximum sustained wind speeds of 225 kilometers per hour and dumping heavy rain across the Bicol region.
It was downgraded a few hours later as it swept across Luzon, and reduced intensity as it skirted the capital Manila and headed out to the South China Sea where it is expected to weaken into a severe tropical storm.
On Sunday, Cabinet officials held a press briefing. Duterte, who was then in Davao City, skipped the event. The hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo (where is the President?) trended after his no-show.
The President will fly back to Manila later Monday, said Malacañang.
THOUSANDS STILL IN EVACUATION CENTERS
"We are horrified by the devastation caused by this typhoon in many areas including Catanduanes island and Albay," Philippines Red Cross chief Richard Gordon said in a statement.
"Up to 90 percent of homes have been badly damaged or destroyed in some areas. This typhoon has smashed into people's lives and livelihoods on top of the relentless physical, emotional and economic toll of COVID-19."
Around 400,000 people fled their homes ahead of the typhoon and most of them remain in evacuation centers as authorities scramble to restore power and telecommunications services in the hardest-hit areas.
In Albay province, provincial disaster chief Cedric Daep said without pre-emptive evacuations "thousands would have died".
"We have extensive damage to infrastructure and housing," Daep said.
"Many people are hungry. They had already suffered from COVID due to the loss of jobs and dislocation. Some don't even have kitchen utensils."
Three of the victims in Albay were caught in landslides of volcanic ash that police said engulfed numerous houses in two adjacent villages near the active Mayon volcano. Another 3 are still missing.
The mayor of Guinobatan, where the villages are located, told local media that around 147 homes had been swamped and some were now unlivable.
Across the areas in Rolly's path, more than 20,000 houses were destroyed and around 55,500 partially damaged, Civil Defense said in a statement. Farmland was also damaged.
Clean-up efforts were under way with residents removing sodden furniture and other belongings from their houses as they shoveled out mud and debris after heavy rains inundated towns.
"The flood took only minutes to rise -- not hours, but minutes," Alona Espino in Batangas city, south of Manila, told AFP.
"We never experienced flood raging so fast."
The Philippines is hit by an average of 20 storms and typhoons every year, which typically wipe out harvests, homes and infrastructure, keeping millions of people perennially poor.
Its deadliest on record was Super Typhoon Haiyan, which unleashed giant waves on the central city of Tacloban and left more than 7,300 people dead or missing in 2013.--With a report from Mikhail Flores, Agence France-Presse