by Ted Aljibe
GUIHULNGAN - Rescuers in the Philippines dug through rubble with their bare hands on Tuesday in a frantic search for survivors, a day after a powerful earthquake killed dozens of people.
The 6.7-magnitude quake hit a narrow strait between the heavily populated islands of Negros and Cebu around lunchtime Monday, triggering devastating landslides, tearing down homes and destroying roads vital to relief efforts.
At least 48 people died and another 92 were missing, regional military commander Colonel Francisco Patrimonio said on Tuesday afternoon, and local government leaders warned the death toll was likely to rise.
"We are praying and hoping that we will get some survivors, but it's likely that many of those missing in the landslides have died already," Roel Degamo, the governor of Negros Oriental, the worst-hit province, told AFP.
Dozens of people were confirmed dead in Guihulngan, a coastal city flanked by mountains with a population of 100,000, where the public market, court house and many private homes were destroyed or badly damaged.
After the tremor brought down bridges and left deep fissures on asphalt roads, the area was only accessible by motorbike, foot or helicopter, and overwhelmed local police had few resources to search for survivors.
"We are using our hands and shovels to search in the rubble," Guihulngan police chief Senior Inspector Alvin Futalan told AFP.
An AFP photographer saw about 50 rescuers dig up the body of a young woman after the mountainside collapsed on a mountain hamlet.
The rescuers later said they heard cries for help underneath the rubble, triggering frenzied digging by men using only shovels. However, they stopped later when they failed to find anyone else.
President Benigno Aquino ordered air force helicopters to Guihulngan, as well as the navy and coast guard to transport relief supplies by sea, according to his spokeswoman Abigail Valte.
An AFP correspondent who reached Guihulngan by motorcycle said survivors were huddled in makeshift tents and refused to go indoors due to a series of terrifying aftershocks.
State seismologists said more than 700 aftershocks, some nearly as strong as the initial quake, had battered Negros, and warned residents to expect many more over the next few weeks.
Guihulngan mayor Ernesto Reyes said patients at the city's main hospital were rushed out of the building after a strong aftershock rattled the walls and split open a tennis court on Tuesday.
He described a sense of despair and fear throughout the city.
"Our water system is broken, there is not enough food, people are in panic and there is no electricity," he told AFP.
Aside from the carnage in Guihulngan, regional commander Patrimonio said rescue efforts were focused on the nearby town of La Libertad where up to 40 people were feared buried in rubble.
In Manila, the national government's disaster office said its death toll was 15, with 71 missing, but acknowledged it had not yet been able to verify reports from local authorities as to the extent of the damage.
Cebu, the Philippines' second biggest city with 2.3 million residents and a popular tourist destination, was 50 kilometres from the epicentre and shook violently during the initial tremor but no deaths were reported there.
The Philippines sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" -- a belt around the Pacific Ocean where friction between shifting tectonic plates causes frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity.
Army soldiers used picks, shovels and chainsaws in a race against time to rescue at least 71 people buried in landslides that covered 80 houses in two barangays (villages) in Guihulngan City and the adjacent La Libertad town, both in Negros Oriental.
President Benigno Aquino III will visit Dumaguete City, one of the areas affected by the temblor, on Wednesday, his 52nd birthday, Malacañang announced.
“(The President) will inspect damaged areas and meet with our countrymen affected by the calamity, as well as with the government workers who are providing much needed relief operations on the ground,” his spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, said.
The number of victims of Monday’s 6.9-magnitude earthquake could still go up as some 90 houses were buried in Barangay Solinggon in La Libertad and in Sitio (sub-village) Moog, Barangay Planas in Guihulngan City. Eighty others were injured.
At least 45 people were confirmed dead—28 in Guihulngan, 10 in La Libertad, three in Jimalalud town, two in Tayasan town and two in Bindoy town, officials said.
In Moog, 29 houses were buried 6 meters (20 feet) deep when a portion of the mountain fell over the mountainside neighborhood during the temblor.
More than 70 soldiers belonging to the 11th Infantry Battalion had to stop digging the soft ground during aftershocks for fear of another landslide.
“But they try to dig and look for survivors,” said Colonel Francisco Patrimonio, commanding officer of the Army’s 302nd Infantry Brigade.
“It is not that we are not conducting operations. We are just waiting for a safer time to continue the retrieval operations,” Patrimonio said.
He said the rescuers needed graders and backhoes to hasten their mission. But he added that bringing the equipment to the site would be difficult with several bridges damaged or which had collapsed from the earthquake.
“What we have on hand we are using. We are using available tool, like shovels, picks and chainsaws,” Patrimonio said.
Twenty-one people were killed in Planas, five in Barangay Poblacion, and one each in Barangay Magsaysay and St. Francis Academy, all in Guihulngan. Eighty others suffered injuries and were brought to Guihulngan District Hospital.
Lieutenant Colonel Ramil Bitong, commander of the 11th IB, said an aerial survey of the landslide-hit areas showed that these were unstable and dangerous, especially during the aftershocks.
“There is a mountain of loose sand and boulders that make it dangerous to start digging,” Bitong told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.
Survey teams reached the landslide areas on foot and confirmed this assessment, he added.
Bitong said professional rescuers with sophisticated equipment, such as a thermal imaging device, were needed for the rescue and retrieval operations.
Guihulngan Mayor Ernesto Reyes said rescue teams, some coming from Manila, were already in Moog. He said one person trapped in the collapsed public market had been rescued.
Bitong said rescue and retrieval operations had been completed in Tayasan, Jimalalud and Vallehermoso.
Federation of volunteers
A report from the Negros Oriental Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said two teams of rescuers from the Federation of Volunteers through Radio Communication Inc. from Cebu were on their way to Guihulngan and La Libertad to augment the operations.
Two military helicopters (UH-IH) from Zamboanga City and a naval patrol gunboat were dispatched by the Armed Forces of the Philippines to help in the disaster relief operations.
Four more helicopters from Metro Manila and Davao province were on standby, AFP spokesperson, Colonel Arnulfo Burgos Jr. said.
“Practically the whole of the 302nd Brigade of about more than a thousand troops are directly involved in the search and rescue and relief operation,” Burgos said.
Governor Roel Degamo ordered the forced evacuation of residents in Planas since the landslide had blocked the Guihulngan River. They will be moved to temporary shelters near the city’s cemetery in Barangays Plaridel and Buenavista.
Bitong said roads in the affected areas sustained huge cracks. These included eight bridges in Guihulngan, one in Jimalalud and one in Martilo, La Libertad.
Degamo estimated the damage to infrastructure at P1 billion.
In Negros Occidental, Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr. called on the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology to monitor the volcanic activity in Mt. Kanlaon following Monday’s earthquake.
Water in Murcia and Moises Padilla towns, which are close to the volcano, has turned brown, said their mayors, Andrew Montelibano and Francisco Nazareno.
Montelibano said fire trucks were bringing in clean water to Barangay Minoyan in Murcia.
In Cebu, officials were checking buildings for any damage because of the earthquake.
At least four school buildings of Cebu City Central School, Guadalupe Elementary School, Mambaling Elementary School and San Nicolas Elementary School in Cebu City were found to have cracks, but experts said these would not affect their structural stability and endanger pupils.
Classes, however, were suspended in all public elementary and secondary schools in Central Visayas to allow an inspection of school buildings, said Recaredo Borgonia, the regional director of the Department of Education. AFP/inquirer.net