By Erik de Castro
NEW BATAAN, Philippines (Reuters) - Residents in the southern Philippines buried their dead on Friday even as rescue workers continued scouring remote areas for survivors of Typhoon Bopha, the nation's strongest storm this year, which killed 418 people and left nearly as many missing.
Officials in Compostela Valley, one of the worst hit provinces on the resource-rich island of Mindanao, were considering mass graves for unclaimed bodies killed by the typhoon which hit two days ago.
Bopha cut a swath of destruction in the valley, flooding farming and mining towns and burying many people in mudslides.
"We are thinking of burying the unclaimed bodies on health concerns," Major General Ariel Bernardo, an army division commander in the southern Philippines, told Reuters.
"The foul smell is becoming strong."
Bernardo said rescue and retrieval work was hampered by lack of equipment. "Some of the dead are buried in knee deep mud and we only have our hands and shovels," he said.
Arturo Uy, governor of Compostela Valley, said the province was considering digging mass graves if most of the dead are not claimed in two to three days. He estimates 212 died in his province while nearly 400 were missing.
"Probably half of the missing could be dead by now," he told Reuters.
The official death toll stands at 418, with 383 missing and hundreds injured, the national disaster agency said in its latest tally.
But the toll is expected to rise, with local government officials quoting higher numbers of missing. The army said they had recovered 439 bodies in Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental provinces.
A Reuters photographer saw at least 10 bodies under mud and piles of logs and debris and only a few hundreds of meters from a crowded makeshift grandstand in New Bataan town in Compostela Valley, where President Benigno Aquino handed out cash and food rations to displaced families.
"I want to know why this tragedy happened. I also wanted to see how this can be avoided, this tragedy," Aquino told the crowd at an open field in New Bataan town.
The search and retrieval operations were temporarily halted after Aquino left due to heavy rain, making it more difficult for rescue workers to penetrate remote areas.
"Up to now, we are not discussing stopping (the search)," Uy told reporters. "There are still survivors in barangays (villages) which we couldn't reach immediately."
Stephen Antig, executive director of Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association, estimates about 7 billion pesos ($171 million) worth of bananas mostly for export in Compostela Valley and Davao del Norte were destroyed by the typhoon.
The area, where plantations owned by Dole Food Company Inc and Del Monte Pacific Ltd are located, accounts for almost a fifth of the country's total banana production.
Bopha has now weakened and is slowly moving north-northwest towards the South China Sea, with central winds of up to 110 kph (68 mph) and gusts of up to 140 kph (87 mph).
About 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year, often causing death and destruction. Almost exactly a year ago, Typhoon Washi killed 1,500 people in Mindanao, but most storms make landfall further north.
($1 = 40.965 Philippine pesos)
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco, Manny Mogato and Erik dela Cruz; Editing by Michael Perry)