The death toll from flash floods that swept away entire villages in the southern Philippines has climbed to nearly 1,500 as authorities widen their search for bodies.

The Office of Civil Defence's latest tally Tuesday listed 891 dead in Cagayan de Oro and an additional 451 in nearby Iligan city. The rest came from several other provinces. Most of the dead are unidentified.

Civil Defence head Benito Ramos says decomposing remains were retrieved floating in the sea as far as 100 kilometres from the two cities where a Dec. 16 tropical storm unleashed more than a month's worth of rainfall in 12 hours, sending walls of water gushing into homes.

Ramos says the search will continue as long as bodies are being recovered.

Ramos said it would take three to six months to restore some normalcy and construct temporary housing to free up schools that are now serving as refugee camps.

More than 60,000 people are homeless, and many of them spent Christmas in jam-packed schools and gymnasiums, officials said.

"We've stopped counting the missing. There are no accurate figures," Ramos said. "Those recovered, we don't know who they are. We have a system in place so that families can claim them later, based on fingerprints and dental records."

The United Nations last week launched an urgent appeal for $28 million to help an estimated 600,000 affected people, more than half the population of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in the southern Mindanao region.  

Aquino orders investigation

Despite warnings from forecasters, most were asleep Dec. 16 when a tropical storm made a landfall in a region rarely visited by typhoons. The torrent sent walls of water gushing into homes.

Many of the dead were women and children who drowned in their beds. Others scrambled to climb roofs to escape the overflowing rivers and muddy waters that carried dangerous debris and logs from nearby mountains. The logs were still floating off the coast.

President Benigno Aquino III, who banned logging in February following previous flooding deaths that experts say were caused partly by deforestation and soil erosion, has ordered an investigation.

Communist guerrillas in the south cancelled Monday's celebration of their movement's 43rd founding anniversary and instead promised to donate money to flood victims and punish multinational companies they accuse of environmental destruction.

Rebel spokesman Jorge Madlos told The Associated Press by telephone that they sought funds for victims from huge pineapple and banana plantations and other companies.

"Some were lukewarm to our call," Madlos said. "That'll be a factor when we decide which ones to punish first for this destruction."

Aid workers provide help

Another factor in the staggering death toll was illegal settlements along Cagayan rivers. Thousands of people lived in shanties on the banks and islands directly along the water's path.

In the evacuation centres, where about a third of the displaced are children, aid workers were providing food, clothes, blankets, bottled water and hygiene kits.

A lack of running water was still a major concern. Many shelters had poor sanitation with open drainage and defecation sites, said Ariel Balofinos, Mindanao manager for Save the Children aid agency.

"Children in particular are susceptible to health threats because immune systems are weak," he said, adding that many youngsters were also traumatized.

"Many children have witnessed friends and family dying. We've come across children who have been orphaned, but the good thing is they have relatives, which is part of the Filipino coping mechanism," he said.