MANILA, Philippines (AP) — One of the strongest typhoons to hit the Philippines this year barreled across the country's south on Tuesday, killing at least seven people and forcing more than 50,000 to flee from inundated villages.
Typhoon Bopha slammed into the Davao region at dawn, its ferocious winds ripping roofs from homes and its 500-kilometer- (311-mile-) wide rain band flooding low-lying farmland. The storm, packing winds of 160 kilometers (99 miles) per hour and gusts of up to 195 kph (121 mph), toppled trees, triggered landslides and sent flash floods surging across the region's mountains and valleys.
In the gold-mining province of Compostela Valley, the fierce wind and rain forced a wall of mud and boulders to cascade down on a house, killing three children. Their bodies were wrapped in blankets by their grieving relatives and placed on a basketball court in Maparat village.
"The only thing we could do was to save ourselves. It was too late for us to rescue them," said Valentin Pabilana, who survived the landslide.
A soldier died and 20 villagers were missing after a flash flood raced down a mountain in Andap town, washing away a truck, according to Compostela Valley Governor Arturo Uy and military officials.
In nearby Davao Oriental, a poor agricultural and gold-mining province about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) southeast of Manila, an elderly woman was killed when her house was struck by a tree felled by howling wind, said Benito Ramos, an ex-army general who now heads the government's disaster-response agency.
A man died a few hours later when a tree knocked him down while he was traveling on a scooter on a road in Misamis Oriental province. One storm-related death was also reported on central Siquijor island, Ramos said.
He said the death toll was expected to rise once soldiers and police gain access to some far-flung villages isolated by floods, fallen trees and downed communications.
Regional disaster-response officer Liza Maso told The Associated Press by telephone that she was trying to confirm an army report that a flash flood washed away a truck carrying an undetermined number of people in New Bataan town, also in Compostela Valley.
While some 20 typhoons and storms normally lash the archipelago nation annually, the southern provinces being battered by Bopha are unaccustomed to fierce typhoons. A rare storm that took the area by surprise last December killed more than 1,200 people and left many more homeless and traumatized.
Officials were taking no chances this year, and President Benigno Aquino III made an appeal on national TV Monday for people in Bopha's path to move to safety and take storm warnings seriously.
"This typhoon is not a joke," Aquino said after meeting top officials in charge of disaster-response.
"But we can minimize the damage and loss of lives if we help each other," he added.
Aquino outlined preparations, including evacuations and the deployment of army search and rescue boats in advance. Authorities also ordered small boats and ferries not to venture out along the country's eastern seaboard, warning of rough seas with up to 4-meter (13-foot) waves.
In Compostela Valley, authorities halted mining operations and ordered villagers to evacuate to prevent a repeat of deadly losses from landslides and the collapse of mine tunnels seen in previous storms.
Bopha, a Cambodian word for flower or a girl, is the 16th weather disturbance to hit the Philippines this year. Forecasters say at least one more storm may hit the country before Christmas.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.