Residents inspect their damaged home in the aftermath of Typhoon Bopha in New Bataan, Compostela Valley in the southern Philippines on December 5, 2012. AFP
NEW BATAAN, Philippines: The death toll from a typhoon that ravaged the Philippines jumped to 238 Wednesday with hundreds missing, as rescuers battled to reach areas cut off by floods and mudslides.
Typhoon Bopha slammed into the southern island of Mindanao Tuesday, toppling trees and blowing away homes with 210-kilometre (130-mile) per hour gusts before easing and heading towards the South China Sea.
A total of 142 people died in and around the mountain town of New Bataan, a gold-rush settlement that was ravaged by flash floods and landslides, regional military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Lyndon Paniza said.
"What's scary is that 258 people are still missing there," Paniza told AFP.
Eighty-one other people were killed and 21 were still missing in the nearby province of Davao Oriental, Paniza said.
Civil defence officials said 15 people were killed elsewhere in Mindanao and the central islands, while 87,000 people sought refuge in gyms, schools and other government buildings.
President Benigno Aquino said the combined tally of more than 500 dead or missing was still below the 1,200 deaths from tropical storm Washi which hit in December 2011, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless in Mindanao.
"Any single casualty is a cause for distress. Our aim must always be about finding ways to lessen them," he told reporters in Manila.
Aquino said the government was investigating why an army patrol base in New Bataan, which was washed away in the flash floods, had been located in a flood-prone area.
Officials are also checking reports that an evacuation centre there was among the structures wiped out in the floods, the president added.
Bopha was the most powerful of the 16 storms to pummel the Philippines this year. The nation is hit with about 20 cyclones annually, though Mindanao is not usually on the front line.
Leaders who flew to the south to inspect the damage described scenes of utter devastation, with countless houses and other buildings in towns and villages ripped apart by the destructive winds.
"There are very few structures left standing in the town of Cateel," Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman and other officials told AFP, referring to an isolated town sandwiched by mountains and the sea on Mindanao's east coast.
"We need to rush to these areas body bags, medicines, dry clothes and most importantly tents, because survivors are living out in the open after the typhoon blew away homes and rooftops."
The situation in New Bataan town was dire, she said.
"The bodies are left lying on the ground in the open in New Bataan and we don't want to risk the spread of disease," Soliman said.
The dead in New Bataan included a soldier taking part in rescue operations, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said. Six other army men from the same unit were missing and three were injured.
"It is quite sad and tragic. They were actually there to be ready to help our countrymen who may be in trouble," Roxas said.
Major General Ariel Bernardo, commander of an army division in New Bataan, said an army patrol base and a rescue truck were washed away in the storm.
"In one of our headquarters, no bunkers were left standing and all our communication equipment has been destroyed," he said.
Cateel and two nearby towns remained cut off due to a collapsed bridge and trees and debris blocking roads, said Corazon Malanyaon, governor of Davao Oriental province where Bopha made landfall.
"It's like we're running an obstacle course," Malanyaon said on local radio, describing how rescuers were using everything from heavy equipment to chainsaws and their bare hands to clear the roads.
Parts of Mindanao remained without power and telephone services, and food and clean water were in limited supply. (AFP)