Swept Away: Flash Floods Ravage Unprepared Philippines

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Froilan Gallardo / AP

A resident wades through a flooded street with an electric fan following a flash flood that inundated Cagayan de Oro city, Philippines, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011.

The water came at night, sending waves racing through sleeping cities, sweeping entire villages out to sea. On Saturday, flash flooding on the island of Mindanao, displaced tens of thousands and killed at least 650 people. The head of the Philippines Red Cross, Gwen Pang told the Associated Press that the death toll was based on body counts from from funeral homes. It is expected to rise as rescue workers continue to sift through rivers of mud and debris. Meanwhile, on the rain-battered coast, rescue boats are plying vast stretches of water, searching for survivors and pulling bodies from the sea.

Although the Philippines is hit by several dozen storms a year, the floods sparked by tropical storm Washi seem to have hit Cagayan de Oro and Iligan city by surprise: Most of the victims were fast asleep when runoff from heavy rain rushed down from the mountains, leveling low-built homes and overturning cars and trucks like playthings. Unlike other parts of the country, the region is not accustomed to typhoons and local officials said “complacency” on the part of residents compounded the damage. The head of the country’s disaster rescue agency, Benito Ramos, told the BBC that officials warned residents of the approaching storm four days in advance, but many people did not evacuate their homes.

The flooding is sure to renew anger over the country’s dismal record on disaster preparedness. Last week, in an interview with TIME, President Benigno Aquino III noted matter-of-factly that his country is hit by an average of more than 20 typhoons a year, “some of which come within days of each other.”  Indeed, on the islands of this sprawling archipelago, severe wind and rain are as predictable as the seasons. So, too, is devastation: In 2009, tropical storm Ketsana laid siege to Manila, submerging an estimated 80% of the capital city and killing an estimated 400 hundred people. In September of this year, Typhoons Nesat and Nalgae hit the northern island of Luzon, killing at least 100 people.

In the wake of Saturday’s flooding, the question is why, given the regularity of the storms, does inclement weather continue to catch the state by surprise? Early warning systems, evacuation plans and effective planning can mitigate, though certainly not eliminate, the effects of natural disasters (see: Japan). As the flood waters recede, the Aquino government will no doubt face questions about the quality of the country’s disaster planning and emergency response measures. The administration has pledged to review disaster response manuals and have mobilized rescue crews. But they’ll be hard pressed to convince Filipinos that it was the complacency of drowned villagers, not the government, that’s to blame for this latest tragedy.

Emily Rauhala is an Associate Editor at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @emilyrauhala. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

More from TIME.comPhotographs of the devastation in Mindanao