Philippine Death Toll Rises To 246 As New Storms Brew

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MANILA, Philippines — Flood victims trudged through ankle-deep sludge to crowded relief centers in the Philippines, as the death toll rose to 246 from waters that submerged the homes of more than 2 million people.

Another tropical storm was headed toward the southern Philippines and could hit on Wednesday afternoon, government forecaster Malou Rivera said. Officials fear more heavy rain could flood already hard-hit areas, and complicate cleanup efforts.

Tropical Storm Ketsana brought the worst flooding to the Southeast Asian country in four decades, chasing some victims to their rooftops to escape the rising water and sweeping others down raging rivers.

The storm struck Saturday in Manila, one of the world's largest cities with about 12 million people, and dumped more than a month's worth of rain in just 12 hours. Flooding was worst around the Pasig River that cuts through the capital, including wealthy suburbs and shanty towns.

At relief centers Wednesday, mostly women and their children clutching bags of belongings lined up at relief centers for bottled water, boiled eggs and packets of instant noodles for a fourth day. Their husbands waded through sludge to return to their homes to clean up the mud – sometimes two feet (half a meter) deep – that carpeted their houses and shops.

The presidential palace was opened as a relief center, and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's executive chef cooked gourmet food for victims at another shelter.

Ketsana strengthened and crashed into Vietnam on Tuesday, killing at least 41 people who drowned, were caught in mudslides or hit by falling trees, officials said. Some 170,000 people were evacuated from the storm, which left a trail of destruction across the country's central region.

The storm also struck Cambodia late Tuesday, killing at least nine people.

"The rivers are rising, and many homes are flooded, and several mountainous districts have been isolated by mudslides," said Nguyen Minh Tuan, a provincial disaster official in Vietnam.

The storm weakened as it moved inland and approached Laos, but rivers were still rising and more rain was forecast for the region Wednesday.

In the Philippines, officials reached farther into hard-hit areas and on Wednesday raised the number of people listed as missing to 42 from 38, and added another 400,000 people to the list of those whose homes were swamped.

The homes of some 2.3 million people are affected, and 390,000 are seeking shelter in relief centers, disaster officials said.

"What happened was, the water suddenly rose. We did not know that the water would reach the second floor, so we went up to the roof but the roof gave in, so we just floated in the water holding on to a trunk of a banana tree," said Herminio Abahat, whose wife is still missing.

Abahat said he and his wife were swept to a river and eventually separated by the raging currents.

Thick, gooey mud lay in the streets in some places, while others were still under a foot or two (half a meter) of water. But the main downtown business and tourist district was largely unscathed.

In Marikina, a suburban district of the capital, police used forklifts to remove mud-caked cars stalled along the road. Elsewhere, people used shovels and brooms to muck brown mud from their homes and businesses, some of which were inundated up to the second floor.

In the Bagong Silangan area of the capital, about 150 people sheltered on a covered basketball court that had been turned into a makeshift evacuation center for storm victims. People lay on pieces of cardboard amid piles of garbage and swarming flies, their belongings crammed into bags nearby.

Seventeen white wooden coffins, some of them child-sized, lined one part of the court. A woman wept quietly beside one coffin.

Gingery Comprendio, a mother of five, described how she left her children on the roof of their house to alert authorities about a live electric line. When she returned, her family was gone.

"I did not know what transpired. We were on top of a roof, but we got separated," Comprendio said. "The next day when I came back to our house I saw my eldest already dead and my aunt saw my other child buried in the mud." Her husband also remains missing.

Sensitive to criticism that her administration was unprepared to respond to the disaster, Arroyo launched a public relations offensive to show her administration was doing all it could to help – even while conceding the country needed international aid.

She opened part of the presidential palace as a relief center, and hundreds of people received food and made free phone calls to friends and relatives.

Presidential aide Hermogenes Esperon said up to 500 victims would be given blankets and other supplies and allowed to stay in the palace grounds after they had undergone security checks, starting with about 50 people on Tuesday night.

The government has declared a "state of calamity" in Manila and 25 storm-hit provinces and estimated the damage at $100 million.

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Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.

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