DARAGA, Philippines - The top Red Cross official in the Philippines said Sunday that he thinks 1,000 people or more have been killed by Typhoon Durian.
"We're estimating the casualties could reach 1,000, perhaps more," said Sen. Richard Gordon, who heads the local Red Cross. His figure of 1,000 was based on reports from Red Cross officials on the ground in the devastated areas.
Gordon said at present his group has recorded a death toll of at least 406, with 398 others missing, based on figures provided by mayors of devastated towns in the eastern Philippines, where Durian hit with 139 mph winds and torrential rains on Thursday.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of national calamity Sunday, allowing the government to more rapidly release funds needed to bolster search and rescue efforts.
Typhoon Durian was the fourth major storm to hit the Philippines in four months. It buffeted the Mayon volcano with so much wind and rain that ash and boulders cascaded down in walls of black mud that swamped entire villages on Thursday.
The Philippines' location in the northwestern Pacific often makes it the region's welcome mat for typhoons.
"We are often the first to experience typhoons before they go to China, Taiwan and Japan," said Thelma Cinco, senior weather specialist of the Philippine weather bureau.
Durian, named after a thorny fruit with a powerful odor that many find offensive, blew away roofs, toppled trees and power lines and sent tons of rocks and volcanic ash down Mayon, the region's most famous landmark about 210 miles southeast of Manila.
Rescuers scouring mountain villages buried under mud and boulders discovered more bodies Saturday. The first funerals were held Saturday evening as bodies rapidly decomposed in the tropical heat.
In the town of Padang, only rooftops protruded from the mud and debris. Power pylons were toppled, a two-lane highway became a one-lane road strewn with debris and overturned trucks.
Silangan Santander, 21, attended funeral services for her brother, Larry, whose widow was five months pregnant. Only his lower torso and legs were found near the sea. Another brother was missing.
"In the community where my brother lived, all the houses there were gone," she said. "There are only rocks, sand and water."
The sound of boulders crashing down Mayon's slopes "were like thunder, and the ground shook," she said. "We thought it would be our end."
The Red Cross appealed for food, tents, water, blankets, mats, mosquito nets and body bags. Canada donated $876,000 while Japan said it would send $173,000, the Philippine government said.
Nationwide, at least 2,892 people have been killed and 909 have gone missing in storms between 2001-05, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council. Damage has totaled $521 million.
The calamities came despite preparations and measures to mitigate the damage.
Anthony Golez, the council's deputy chief said the people of the Philippines need to be better informed about disaster preparedness.
He said Filipinos should be "bombarded" with disaster information, including stories of the Indian Ocean tsunami two years ago and the February 2006 landslide in the central Philippine village of Guinsaugon that killed more than 1,000.
"They have to get scared, or else," he said. "We have to give them the reality, and it's a sad reality. We have to tell them the truth."
But beyond preparedness, Golez said too many people live close to danger zones like mountainsides or riverbanks.
"They are pushed there because they do not have any choice. If you develop their economy, then they would have more options," he said.
Gordon, the local Red Cross head, said better planning is needed.
"We have to break the cycle of disaster and poverty by being smarter, by being sure we can plan our community smarter," he said. "The big problem here in our country is we don't plan our communities. It's every man for himself."
He said the government has money for disaster mitigation but that politicians look to building projects that last only long enough for people to remember them during election campaigns.
Mayor Jessie Robredo of Naga city in Camarines Sur, a province in the Bicol region often hit by typhoons, said his people are used to the yearly storms and began bracing for Durian a week before it arrived. The result was "zero casualty" this time, he said.
But he laments that emergency funds, used to help his constituents get back on their feet after typhoons, could be used for economic projects.
"We would have been more progressive, more productive," he said. "The worst part of a typhoon is that instead of using our funds for livelihood, we use them for relief to help people rebuild their lives. Instead of building infrastructures, we repair buildings."
The cycle seems unlikely to break soon.
"The people of Naga are very resilient," Robredo said. "Typhoons are like a way of life, a part of life. We do not like them, but our attitude is that there is still another day and we will rise again."