Rescuers expanded the search for victims of tropical storm Sendong (international name: Washi) as authorities reported that more than 1,000 are still missing, a government official said.

Benito Ramos, administrator of the Office of Civil Defense, said the number of fatalities rose from 1,010 to 1,080 as rescuers continued to recover bodies at sea.

Some of those that were recovered Thursday were found in waters off Balingasag, Misamis Oriental, Ramos said.

“Malayo na ito sa Cagayan de Oro, malapit na sa Gingoog… kung ganun na ang palatandaan, ibig sabihin umaabot na sa Camiguin ‘yung mga bangkay, ganoon na kalawak, 300 to 400 kilometers na ang layo sa Cagayan de Oro kaya lumawak pa ang paghahanap,” the official told reporters in a phone interview.

In its latest update, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said 1,079 persons are still missing in Northern Mindanao, ARMM, and Central Visayas.

Eduardo Ollet, head of the NDRRMC operations center in Manila, said the figure was based on reports by relatives of those who remain unaccounted for a week after the storm wreaked havoc.

“‘Yung report kasi ng kamag-anak kailangan mong i-report ‘yun as valid, ang problema natin ‘yung mga bangkay na hindi na mapagkilanlan… baka marami dun ay ‘yung mga inireport na nawawala,” Ollet said.

Ramos, also the NDRRMC’s executive director, said he ordered the operations center to stop counting the missing persons as the results may be “misleading.”

“Pinahinto ko muna ‘yang bilang ng missing kasi maski ‘yung barangay captain hindi na niya talaga alam kung ilan, nung madaling-araw na mangyari ‘yun, maraming natutulog so there was a lot of confusion,” he said.

Ramos assured that the search and retrieval operations will continue even during Christmas and New Year’s days.

Slow recovery

Meanwhile, Ramos said Sendong caused so much destruction in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan that it will take time for the lives of residents to return to normal.

The main concern now is to sustain the thousands of people left homeless by floods that wrecked a number of communities, according to the official.

“The situation is slowly going back to normal, kailangan kasing i-sustain natin ‘yung mga tao dahil walang mapuntahan na bahay, magko-construct muna tayo ng bahay, medyo matagal ‘yun,” he said.

The NDRRMC said the storm affected 102,899 families or 674,472 people in Northern Mindanao, Southern Mindanao, Western Mindanao, ARMM, Caraga, Central Visayas, and Western Visayas.

It placed the number of evacuees in Northern Mindanao – where Cagayan de Oro and Iligan belong to – at 46,486 families or 249,679 persons.

“Sendong,” the deadliest storm to hit the country after “Uring” killed 5,000 in Ormoc in 1991, destroyed 8,068 houses and left 12,221 others partially damaged in Northern Mindanao, according to the NDRRMC.

Ramos said the NDRRMC and the local government of Cagayan de Oro have already identified a site where the evacuees will be relocated.

“Na-identify na ‘yung lugar na lilipatan nila, ipatag lang muna kasi baku-bako… mataas na lugar ito, hindi na flood-prone area, hindi rin landslide-prone area, safe sila dito,” the official said. (John Roson)

– end –