ILIGAN, Philippines - With funeral homes overwhelmed, authorities in a flood-stricken southern Philippine city organized yesterday the first mass burial of people who were swept to their deaths in one of worst calamities to strike the region in decades.
The official death toll from Friday night’s disaster, spawned by a tropical storm, rose to 927. Benito Ramos, head of the Office of Civil Defense, said more bodies were retrieved from the ocean.
The number of missing varied widely. Official figures put the number at 82, while the Philippine Red Cross estimated 800. The disparity underscores the difficulty in accounting for people who could be buried in the mud and debris littering much of the area or could be alive but lost in crowded evacuation centers or elsewhere.
In Iligan, a coastal industrial hub of 330,000 people, Mayor Lawrence Cruz said the city’s half dozen funeral parlors were full to capacity and no longer accepting bodies. The first 50 or so unclaimed bodies were buried in individual tombs at the city cemetery, he said.
“For public health purposes, we’re doing this,’’ Cruz said. “The bodies are decomposing and there is no place where we can place them, not in an enclosed building, not in a gymnasium.’’
He said many of the Iligan dead, 279 by official count, “are just piled and laid outside the morgues,’’ which ran out of formaldehyde for embalming and coffins.
In nearby Cagayan de Oro city, the situation was more chaotic, and people were resisting mass burials, demanding that bodies be held until relatives can claim them.
About 580 died in Cagayan de Oro, most of them women and children, many of whom lived along river banks. Flood waters came gushing after 12 hours of pounding rain, catching most of them in their sleep.
Residents told local officials that plans for a mass burial was un-Christian, said Cagayan de Oro city administrator Griscelda Joson.