NAGA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine troops and police forcibly evacuated residents of five villages vulnerable to landslides after the collapse of a mountainside buried dozens of homes and killed at least 29 people in a central region.
Some residents left on their own, but most of the more than 1,200 people in villages near the landslide-hit area in Naga city were forcibly moved by authorities Thursday night, police Chief Superintendent Debold Sinas said Friday.
Four regional environmental officials, meanwhile, were suspended Friday for telling local officials last month that cracks found in the area of a limestone quarry at the mountain where the landslide occurred were not an imminent danger. Officials said the four would be investigated and could face criminal charges.
Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu also suspended quarry operations in the mountains around Naga city and several other provinces for 15 days to determine if they pose any danger. Survivors heard a thunderous roar, crashing and banging when the mountainside collapsed onto houses in two villages Thursday morning. Some who were trapped in the sludge managed to send text messages pleading for help, but the messages stopped within a few hours.
Distraught relatives begged for more backhoes to be brought to the earth and debris where they hoped loved ones could be pulled out alive, but there were far too few machines to dig for the dozens of people missing.
Dennis Pansoy, a 41-year-old shipyard worker, had left his wife, two sons and two other relatives in the family home for less than an hour on his way to work when the landslide buried his neighborhood.
Since Thursday, Pansoy has been standing by the mound of more than 20 meters (65 feet) of earth and rocks covering his house and watching rescuers dig slowly with shovels. No heavy equipment had come. Pansoy asked why no one had warned residents to evacuate after cracks were spotted on the mountainside.
“If we had been warned, we would have left,” Pansoy said. “I lost everything after I stepped out of the house yesterday.”
Resident Nimrod Parba said a trapped relative called for help about three hours after the landslide hit, entombing 13 of his kin. “They are still under the rubble, they are still there. They are covered in shallow earth, we need a backhoe,” Parba said.
A man embracing a child in a house was dug out by searchers using a backhoe Thursday night in a poignant scene witnessed by two AP journalists.
Authorities have limited the number of rescuers and other people inside the villages, fearing heavy rains could cause new slides. Thursday’s landslide also covered part of a river, prompting officials to order a temporary canal to be dug.
About 270 government troops and policemen were deployed to prevent residents from returning to high-risk villages, Sinas said.
President Rodrigo Duterte visited Naga city in Cebu province on Friday night and promised to help the landslide victims.
The landslide in the central region occurred as parts of the far northern Philippines deal with damage from a typhoon that hit last weekend. At least 95 people were killed and more than 50 are missing, many in the gold-mining town of Itogon where landslides hit houses and a chapel where people had gathered in the storm.
Cebu province was not directly hit by Typhoon Mangkhut but the storm intensified the seasonal monsoon rains that normally fall in tropical Asia.
It’s not clear what set off Thursday’s landslide, but some residents blamed the limestone quarries.
The Philippines is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. It is lashed by about 20 tropical storms each year and has active seismic faults where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. Poverty forces many people to live in vulnerable areas, making natural disasters more deadly.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila contributed to this report.
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