MANILA — Flash floods in the southern Philippines on Saturday sent water gushing into homes, killing more than 500 people and surprising families who fled to rooftops clutching children, officials said.
"The rivers flooded and washed through villages,” said Col. Leopoldo Galon, a military spokesman. “Soldiers conducting search-and-rescue operations are finding bodies in all areas, in homes, rivers, offshore, in the street. Casualties are everywhere.”
The flooding was set off by tropical storm Washi, which hit the southern Philippine island of Mindanao on Friday with winds of up to 56 miles per hour and heavy rain. By early Saturday, the storm had caused flooding in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City, officials said.
The heavy rain sent water pouring down mountains and into already swollen rivers that quickly engulfed areas in the northern part of Mindanao. Fast-rising waters poured into homes after 2 a.m., when most people were sleeping, said Benito Ramos, a civil defense official, during a news briefing in Manila.
By Saturday night, the Philippine Red Cross had counted 521 bodies, including 239 in Cagayan de Oro and 195 in Iligan City, and said that 458 people were missing.
The storm is the 19th to hit the country this year, but Mr. Ramos said typhoons and tropical storms usually strike farther north; this one took a path that officials had never seen before. As a result, many residents were caught off guard by the water’s speed and ferocity. Local officials confirmed his assessment.
“This area is not on the usual path for violent typhoons and doesn’t get this type of severe flooding,” Colonel Galon said. “This storm took a different path, and it surprised people.”
He noted that soldiers in the area were preparing for Christmas celebrations with their families when they were called in for emergency operations that quickly turned into the grim and grisly task of collecting bodies. “We’re not complaining,” he said. “It’s our job.”
Residents in the area expressed similar sentiments, noting that Christmas trees had been erected in parks in Cagayan de Oro, a popular tourist town, and that residents had begun going to church nightly in preparation for the holidays.
“This Christmas is going to be imprinted in everybody’s memories,” Stephanie Caragos, 34, said. “We are seeing trucks pass by filled with dead bodies, and people are buying in bulk to give away to those who need it. This will be in our minds for a long time.”
Reached by telephone, Ms. Caragos, a lifelong resident of the city, said she had lost an uncle in the flooding and found that funeral parlors in the area were busy with many victims.
“We knew there was a storm coming, but we had no idea it would be this bad,” she said. “When we woke up, whole parts of the city were flooded. There were areas where the water was so strong that even the rescuers could not get it in.”
The storm was expected to leave the Philippines on Sunday, after striking the western island of Palawan, according to the national weather service.
The country was hit by tropical storm Banyan in October, which killed eight people. In September, two typhoons, Nesat and Nalgae, struck in quick succession and killed more than 100 people.