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The Philippines

Rescuers dig for survivors after new landslide buries dozens on Philippine tourist island Cebu

Days of heavy monsoon rains may have caused a steep slope to collapse and now searchers are frantically looking for survivors

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2018, 10:27pm

A massive landslide buried dozens of homes in two villages near a central Philippine mountain on Thursday, killing at least 15 people and sending rescuers scrambling to find survivors after some sent mobile phone text messages pleading for help.

The avalanche surged down on about 30 rural houses after daybreak in Naga city in Cebu province, said Roderick Gonzales, the city police chief, as he helped supervise the search and rescue operation. Seven injured villagers were pulled out of the huge mound of earth and debris.

Some victims still managed to send text messages after the landslide hit, Gonzales said, adding elderly women and a child were among the dead.

“Even four-storey houses are buried,” said witness John Rhay Repuesto Echavez, who also saw the human toll of the slide.

“[My neighbour] was crying right in front of her sister’s house. There was nothing left, not even the rooftop was visible,” he said. “Her sister’s whole family was buried.”

Naga city Mayor Kristine Vanessa Chiong said at least 64 people were still missing.

“We’re really hoping we can still recover them alive,” she said.

The landslide hit while several northern Philippine provinces were still dealing with deaths and widespread damage wrought by Typhoon Mangkhut, which pummelled the agricultural region on Saturday and left at least 88 people dead and dozens missing. A massive search was still underway for people feared dead after landslides in the gold mining town of Itogon in the north.

In Naga city, rescuers were treading carefully in small groups on the unstable ground to avoid more casualties.

“We’re running out of time. The ground in the area is still vibrating. We’re striking a balance between intensifying our rescue efforts and ensuring the safety of our rescuers,” Naga city Councillor Carmelino Cruz said by phone.

Cristita Villarba, a 53-year-old local, said her husband and son were getting ready to leave for work when the ground shook and they were overwhelmed by a roar.

“It was like an earthquake and there was this thundering, loud banging sound. All of us ran out,” Villarba said, adding she, her husband and three children were shocked but unhurt.

Outside, she saw the house of her elderly brother, Lauro, and his family was buried in the landslide.

“Many of our neighbours were crying and screaming for help. Some wanted to help those who got hit but there was too much earth covering the houses, including my brother’s,” she said.

More than a dozen people live in her brother’s home, mostly his family and grandchildren, she said, adding that many small houses in her community were hit.

It’s not clear what set off the landslide, but some residents blamed limestone quarries, which they suspect may have damaged and caused cracks in the mountainside. Villarba said a light rain stopped when the landslide hit and there was no rain on Wednesday.

The quarry nearest the landslide-hit villages was abandoned about a year ago, but a company still runs a government-authorised quarry not far away and villagers also profit from the limestone business, Angeline Templo, an assistant to the mayor, said by phone.

More than 300 villagers were taken from the area for their safety as search and rescue work continued, Templo said.

Naga is a coastal city with a population of more than 100,000. Cebu province was not directly hit by Mangkhut but the massive typhoon helped intensify monsoon rains in a large part of the archipelago, including the central region, where Naga city lies about 570km (353 miles) southeast of Manila.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse