Typhoon-ravaged Philippine islands faced an unimaginably huge recovery effort that had barely begun on Monday, as bloated bodies lay uncollected and uncounted in the streets and survivors pleaded for food, water and medicine.
Police guarded stores to prevent people from hauling off food, water and non-essentials such as TVs and treadmills, but there was often no one to carry away the dead, not even those seen along the main road from the airport to Tacloban, the worst-hit city along the country’s remote eastern seaboard.
At a small naval base, eight bloated corpses including that of a baby were submerged in sea water brought in by the storm. Officers there had yet to move them, saying they had no body bags or electricity to preserve them.
Two officials said on Sunday that Friday’s typhoon may have killed 10,000 or more people, but with the slow pace of recovery, the official death toll remained well below that. The Philippine military confirmed 942 dead, but shattered communications, transportation links and local governments indicate that the final toll will take days to be known. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said “we pray” that the death toll is less than 10,000.
Tacloban resembled a garbage dump from the air, punctuated only by a few concrete buildings that remained standing.
“I don’t believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way every single building, every single house,” U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy said after taking a helicopter flight over the city. He spoke on the tarmac at the airport, where two Marine C-130 cargo planes were parked, engines running, unloading supplies.
Authorities said at least 2 million people in 41 provinces were affected by Haiyan, one of the most powerful recorded typhoons to ever hit land and likely the deadliest natural disaster to beset this poor Southeast Asian nation.
Philippine soldiers were distributing food and water in Tacloban, and assessment teams from the United Nations and other international agencies were seen for the first time. The U.S. military dispatched food, water, generators and a contingent of Marines to the city, the first outside help in what will swell into a major international relief mission.
“Please tell my family I’m alive,” said Erika Mae Karakot, a survivor on Tacloban’s Leyte island, as she lined up for aid. “We need water and medicine because a lot of the people we are with are wounded. Some are suffering from diarrhoea and dehydration due to shortage of food and water.”
Authorities had evacuated some 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon, but many evacuation centres, brick-and-mortar schools, churches and government buildings could not withstand the winds and water surges. Officials said people who had huddled in these buildings drowned or were swept away.
Emily Ortega, 21 and about to give birth, was among those who had thought she was safe. But the evacuation centre she had fled to was devastated by the 6-metre storm surge, and she had to swim and cling to a post to survive. She reached safety at the airport, where she gave birth to a baby girl. Bea Joy Sagales appeared in good health, and her arrival drew applause from others in the airport and military medics who assisted in the delivery.
The winds, rains and coastal storm surges transformed neighbourhoods into twisted piles of debris, blocking roads and trapping decomposing bodies underneath. Ships were tossed inland, cars and trucks swept out to sea and bridges and ports washed away.
“In some cases the devastation has been total,” said Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras.
Residents have stripped malls, shops and homes of food, water and consumer goods. Officials said some of the looting smacked of desperation but in other cases items taken included TVs, refrigerators, Christmas trees and a treadmill. An Associated Press reporter said he saw around 400 special forces and soldiers patrolling downtown to guard against further chaos.
Brig. Gen. Kennedy said Philippine forces were handling security well, and that his forces were “looking at how to open up roads and land planes and helicopters. We got shelter coming in. (The U.S. Agency for International Development) is bringing in water and supplies”.
Those caught in the storm were worried that aid would not arrive soon enough.
“We’re afraid that it’s going to get dangerous in town because relief goods are trickling in very slow,” said Bobbie Womack, an American missionary and longtime Tacloban resident from Athens, Tennessee. “I know it’s a massive, massive undertaking to try to feed a town of over 150,000 people. They need to bring in shiploads of food.”
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he was considering declaring a state of emergency or martial law in Tacloban. A state of emergency usually includes curfews, price and food supply controls, military or police checkpoints and increased security patrols.
It inflicted serious damage to at least six islands in the middle of the eastern seaboard, with Leyte, Samar and the northern part of Cebu appearing to bear the brunt of the storm.
A video from Eastern Samar province’s Guiuan township — the first area where the typhoon made landfall — showed a trail of devastation similar to Tacloban. Many houses were flattened and roads were strewn with debris and uprooted trees. The ABS-CBN video showed several bodies on the street, covered with blankets.
“I have no house, I have no clothes. I don’t know how I will restart my life. I am so confused,” an unidentified woman said, crying. “I don’t know what happened to us. We are appealing for help. Whoever has a good heart, I appeal to you please help Guiuan.”
The United Nations said it was sending supplies but access to the worst hit areas was a challenge.
“Reaching the worst affected areas is very difficult, with limited access due to the damage caused by the typhoon to infrastructure and communications,” said UNICEF Philippines Representative Tomoo Hozumi.
The storm’s sustained winds weakened to 120 kmph as the typhoon made landfall in northern Vietnam early on Monday after crossing the South China Sea, according to the Hong Kong meteorological observatory. Authorities there evacuated hundreds of thousands of people, but there were no reports of significant damage or injuries.
It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it entered southern China later on Monday, and weather officials forecast torrential rain over the coming 24 hours across southern China. Guangxi officials advised fishermen to stay onshore.
The Philippines, an archipelago nation of more than 7,000 islands, is annually buffeted by tropical storms and typhoons, which are called hurricanes and cyclones elsewhere. The impoverished and densely populated nation of 96 million people is in the North-Western Pacific, right in the path of the world’s No. 1 typhoon generator, according to meteorologists. The archipelago’s exposed eastern seaboard often bears the brunt.
Even by the standards of the Philippines, however, Haiyan is an epic catastrophe. Its winds were among the strongest ever recorded, and it appears to have killed more people than the previous deadliest Philippine storm, Thelma, in which about 5,100 people died in the central Philippines in 1991.
The country’s deadliest disaster on record was the 1976 magnitude 7.9 earthquake that triggered a tsunami in the Moro Gulf in southern Philippines, killing 5,791 people.