Philippine rescuers race to help typhoon-hit towns

MANILA - Philippine rescuers cleared landslide-choked roads on Tuesday in an effort to reach isolated villages that were devastated by deadly Typhoon Utor, which left tens of thousands of people homeless.

The government reported that two people had been confirmed killed and 11 others were missing after Utor, the strongest storm this year, swept across the north of the country on Monday.

"Trees have fallen down, roofs have been torn off houses, electric poles and electric towers have collapsed," said National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council spokesman Reynaldo Balido, describing chaos from coastal towns to mountain villages hundreds of kilometres (miles) apart.

One of the top priorities for rescuers were three towns in Aurora province on the east coast of the main island of Luzon that were in Utor's direct path when it made landfall before dawn on Monday.

The towns, home to about 45,000 people, were still completely cut off on Tuesday morning, according to Aurora disaster chief Elson Egargue.

He said the mayor of one of the towns, Casiguran, reported that 95 per cent of the buildings in the town had been destroyed.

Rescuers deployed earthmoving equipment on Tuesday to clear the national highway leading to the three towns, which was blocked in several areas by landslides, floods and fallen tree trunks, Egargue said.

However Egargue and Balido said officials had not reported any major deaths, giving cause for optimism.

"These towns are used to typhoons so we hope they have become more resilient and avoided casualties," Balido said.

He said the national disaster council had dispatched a helicopter to Casiguran on Tuesday to assess the damage and check for casualties.

Gerardo Noveras, the governor of Aurora, said on ABS-CBN television that the road to Casiguran should be re-opened on Tuesday afternoon.

Hundreds of people die each year in the Philippines from the roughly 20 typhoons or tropical storms that strike the country annually.

But when Utor hit land, its wind gusts were reaching 200 kilometres (124 miles) an hour, making it the strongest storm this year, according to the weather bureau.

"This was nearly as powerful as Bopha," Balido said, referring to the world's deadliest typhoon last year that hit the southern Philippines in December, killing more than 1,000 people.

Utor flattened at least 1,577 houses and more than 30,000 people were in temporary shelters on Tuesday, according to the disaster council.

However this tally did not include many people in the three devastated towns in Aurora province, as authorities had not been able to assess the damage there.

The two confirmed fatalities were a man who drowned and another who was buried by a landslide.

Of the 11 people listed as missing, one was a woman swept away as she stood crying for help atop her house that was swept away by a swollen river.

A local television crew filmed the woman as she was swallowed up by the river.

"The community was evacuated before the onslaught of the typhoon but she refused to be evacuated," said Norma Talosig, civil defence chief for the northeastern Philippines.

The Red Cross listed a third death but gave no details.

Talosig said the typhoon had also caused severe damage to farms in the province of Isabela, one of the country's top rice and corn producers.

On Tuesday, Utor was in the South China Sea tracking towards southern China, according to the Hong Kong Observatory.

It said Utor's wind gusts were reaching 155 kilometres (96 miles) an hour.