Aquino flew to Mindanao Island to inspect the ports of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan — choked with drying mud, crumpled homes, and hundreds of decomposing corpses after being struck by tropical storm Washi at the weekend.
Two dump trucks arrived at the public cemetery in Iligan at dusk, with soldiers unloading 38 coffins of victims identified and claimed by relatives, who cried and lit candles as they witnessed the burial.
On Monday, as the stench of decomposing bodies grew unbearable and health fears rose, local authorities had announced plans for burials in mass graves. But after intense criticism they hastily arranged individual tombs.
“It is not like digging a hole and sticking them in there. They are being given apartment-style compartments, and I think it’s pretty decent,” said Iligan city mayor Lawrence Cruz as he led the first of the burials.
Cruz said forensics experts were taking fingerprints and DNA samples of the many other unidentified bodies at overflowing local mortuaries and that dozens more would be buried today.
Aquino pledged aid to the slum communities hit by the disaster, which the government has said left 957 people dead and 49 others missing — a toll they fear could rise as bodies swept out to sea begin to surface.
“I assure you the government will help you rebuild your homes. But in return we expect you to refrain from moving back to those places that put your lives at constant risk,” Aquino said in a speech at an evacuation centre.
The president pledged to repair damaged roads and water systems, mass housing units in safe relocation areas, and water level sensors for all major river basins across the country to help communities avoid similar disasters.
Aquino said he would sign an order declaring a national “state of calamity” to make the necessary funds available.
Officials and experts said many of the dead were informal settlers living in shantytowns built on river sand bars made up of soft and unstable sediment.
But Cagayan de Oro mayor Vicente Emano said that despite the president’s words, he would be unable to stop survivors returning unless the government can offer them homes elsewhere.
“These people will insist on going back because they have no other place to go back to. Are you going to shoot them?” he asked.
More than 284,000 people have been displaced by the storm with more than 42,000 huddled in crowded, makeshift government evacuation centres.
Authorities likened the impact of tropical storm Washi to Ketsana, one of the country’s most devastating storms, which dumped huge amounts of rain on Manila and other parts of the country in 2009, killing 464 people.