Hundreds dead as typhoon pounds the Philippines

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The Independent Online

Up to 400 people are feared dead in the Philippines after Typhoon Durian pounded northern and central regions with torrential rain and winds of 155mph, triggering powerful landslides.

The Albay region, south of Manila, was among the worst hit, as rock falls and volcanic mudslides caused by the heavy rains devastated several villages.

"This is the worst catastrophe in our province's history," Fernando Gonzalez, Albay province's governor, said. "We don't have the capacity to handle the devastation it caused."

The head of the Red Cross in the Philippines, Richard Gordon, said 198 people were confirmed dead, with 260 missing, but the death toll could increase dramatically. At least 3,316 families in the southern provinces lost their homes.

News of the steadily increasing death toll came as the World Meteorological Association (WMO) reported a moderate increase in sea surface temperatures across the south Pacific region. The phenomenon, known as an " El Niño", occurs every three to seven years and has the potential to cause erratic weather patterns worldwide.

While El Niños often suppress hurricane activity in the Atlantic, they cause severe droughts, flooding and forest fires in Australia, the Philippines, Central America and the Indian sub-continent.

"An El Niño is usually associated with a weaker hurricane season," WMO's Rupa Kumar Kolli said. "But a moderate El Niño does not mean that the impacts will be moderate."

The worst recorded El Niño killed over 2,000 people across the south Pacific region in 1997 and 1998, causing damage worth an estimated $33bn.

Noel Rosal, the mayor of Legazpi, the capital of Albay, visited villages where he said some victims had their clothes ripped off as they were swept away, while mudslides crashed down with molten rocks as big as a car. "It's terrible. We now call this place a black desert," he said.

Albay is normally about 200 miles by road from Manila. But bridges and sections of road have been ripped apart by the storm, which first hit the island of Catanduanes, an island province with no mountains to break the storm's force, yesterday.

"It really destroyed the island it hit," Dr Graciano Yumul, of the Filipino Department of Science and Technology, said. "That is the reason you are seeing the kind of destruction you are seeing right now."

Durian is the fourth "super typhoon" to hit the Philippines in as many months. It is named after the tropical Durian fruit - considered a delicacy in South East Asia, but viewed with disdain by tourists, who struggle with its overpowering odour.

In September, Typhoon Xangsane killed 230 people, with many more missing. Typhoon Cimaron left 19 people dead and injured 58 others last month, while in November, Typhoon Chebi struck the central Luzon region, killing one.