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MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines shifted its efforts on Sunday to sending relief in northern provinces devastated by floods and cut off by landslides as the death toll from two typhoons in 14 days rose to at least 530.
Rescue teams, using shovels and their bare hands to avoid triggering more landslides, continued to search for bodies in the areas of northern Luzon island that remained isolated.
"The most important thing is to open roads so we can send relief goods because we cannot hope to find alternate routes," Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said in a TV interview.
"We have a massive push using our assets -- the armed forces, coast guard, police, and the U.S. forces are in the north."
U.S. troops holding military exercises nearby sent a C130 transport planer and three Chinook helicopters to help bring food and medicines to Baguio City in mountainous Benguet province, 250 kms (155 miles) north of the capital and nearby areas cut off by landslides.
"As of now, food and relief materials can only be delivered by helicopters because it will take 2-5 days to clear up roads and bridges washed out by floods and landslides," said Lieutenant-Colonel Ernesto Torres, spokesman for the national disaster agency.
Lieutenant-Colonel Romeo Brawner, army spokesman said: "We are now slowly diverting our attention from rescue operations to disaster relief operations."
BOULDERS BLOCKING ROADS
Olive Luces, head of the civil defence office in the northern Cordillera region said the main access roads to Baguio City were still cut off by landslides, with boulders twice as high as commuter vans blocking the winding highway snaking through the mountains.
The latest report of the national disaster agency placed the death toll from Typhoon Parma, which hit the Philippines a week ago, at 193, including 134 from Benguet province alone.
But Luces said at least 152 died in Benguet, with 25 deaths in the nearby Mt. Province not included in the official report by the national headquarters.
Initial estimates of damage from the two storms on production of rice, the country's staple, was estimated at 478,000 tonnes, equivalent to 7 percent of the forecast harvest of 6.5 million tonnes in the fourth quarter, Jesus Emmanuel Paras, Agriculture undersecretary, said on Saturday.
Manila, the world's biggest rice buyer, is considering importing rice to augment its supply for 2010 after the typhoon damage, with Vietnam and Thailand eager to provide the grain.
Teodoro said total damage to crops and infrastructure from the two storms amounted to at least 15 billion pesos (203 million pounds), with the Philippines now rushing a 10 billion peso additional budget for 2009 to fund rehabilitation efforts.
Besides setting off landslides in the mountains, rains, dumped by Typhoon Parma have swollen rivers and reservoirs, forcing dams used for hydropower and irrigation to release water and causing more flooding in areas downstream.
Parma first hit the Philippines on October 3 and hovered around the northern part of the main Luzon island throughout the week before weakening and moving out to sea.
The floods and mudslides came two weeks after another storm, Ketsana, inundated areas in and around the capital Manila, killing 337 people and forcing half a million from their homes.
(Reporting by Manny Mogato and Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Bill Tarrant)

Reuters