TACLOBAN, Philippines — Even as the Philippines reopened two airstrips to help speed up the flow of aid Wednesday, parts of the typhoon-hit central region plunged deeper into distress, with gunfire cracking to ward off looters and survivors worrying that they would die before they received help.
“We survived the typhoon, but this will kill us,” Mary Jane Garcia, 44, said at the crowded airport in the city of Tacloban where she and hundreds of others begged for a flight out on a military transport plane.
The ramped-up relief effort in the Philippines has brought aid to tens of thousands of victims of Typhoon Haiyan, but it has also illustrated the vastness of this disaster — which spans several hundred miles of islands and includes areas yet to be accessed.
Nearly six days after the storm ripped through the central islands of the Philippines, bringing with it a tsunami-like wall of water, the extent of the devastation is clear. Bloated bodies of people and carcasses of pigs and dogs line the main streets. Towns are short on body bags. Roads are blocked. Fuel is almost impossible to find, even for aid workers with vehicles that could transport vital supplies.
The disaster has reduced Tacloban, once a bustling provincial capital of 220,000, to a broken landscape of denuded hills and brown rot. Government buildings are abandoned and torn apart, and the stink of decay fills the air. With power out everywhere, miles of downed electrical wires have been repurposed as makeshift laundry lines, on which residents hang soaked remnants of clothing and bedding.
Asked where she would be willing to relocate if she could secure space on a plane ferrying emergency crews and supplies, Garcia did not hesitate: “Anywhere.”
Government officials say that more than 1,000 armed forces personnel have been deployed nationwide to restore order, and in Tacloban, police have imposed an evening curfew. But about 10 miles outside the city Tuesday, a mob ransacked a government building storing packages of rice, Rex Estoperez, a spokesman for the National Food Authority, said in a telephone interview.
The incident illustrated the problems with the hasty relief efforts, Estoperez said. The packages of rice were not piled securely, and when the mob entered the building, the rice bags collapsed, knocking over a wall and killing eight of the looters. The others in the mob walked out with whatever they could grab — amounting to thousands of sacks of rice, which they are trying to resell locally.
“We’re asking the people who took the rice to share it with the victims instead of selling it and doing business,” Estoperez said.
The Philippines has never conducted a relief operation of such magnitude, Jose Rene Almendras, a cabinet secretary, told reporters.
There are some signs of progress. In the town of Ormoc, on the same island as Tacloban, aid workers say that the police presence is heavy and that security is not a problem.
Two airports in the disaster zone reopened Wednesday, giving new options for transport planes, aviation officials said. Water-
purification equipment was flown into Tacloban on Wednesday, and newly installed beacons and runway lights allowed for nighttime takeoffs and landings for the first time since the disaster.
In a statement Wednesday, President Obama encouraged Americans “who want to help our Filipino friends to visit whitehouse.gov/typhoon, which offers links to organizations working in the Philippines and ways to support their efforts.”
“The friendship between our two countries runs deep, and when our friends are in trouble, America helps,” said Obama, noting a growing U.S. assistance effort. “U.S. ships, including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, are on their way to the scene to help expand search and rescue operations, provide logistical support and medical care, and provide a platform for helicopters to move supplies to remote areas.”
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos toured Tacloban on Wednesday and told reporters afterward that although a significant amount of material was brought in Wednesday, much more remains to be done. Her office has released $25 million in emergency relief funds; countries around the globe are pledging to send millions in assistance.
“The priority has got to be — let’s get the food in, let’s get the water in,” Amos said, according to the Associated Press. “We really need to scale up [the] operation.”
Some Philippine officials are indicating that the death toll might be substantially lower than initially feared. Based on the latest government count, 2,344 people are dead. President Benigno Aquino III told CNN on Tuesday that the final figure might not top 2,500.
His spokeswoman, though, said Wednesday in a phone interview that it is difficult to be sure, and some aid workers have reported towns with thousands of people dead or missing. Estimates of the dead were as high as 10,000 early in the week.
“I wouldn’t put too much into the figures,” the spokeswoman, Abigail Valte, said. “There are a number of areas we haven’t been able to reach, and we haven’t been able to collate the information.”
On Wednesday, C-130 transport planes from the United States arrived with supplies, along with a 747 jetliner containing goods such as tents and sanitary aids, said Brian Goldbeck, the U.S. deputy chief of mission in the Philippines.
But there’s clearly a logjam in distributing the goods from Tacloban, where the stacked-up crates and containers have started to encroach on the runway.
To reach some of the more remote areas, the Philippines is relying on help from the United States, which has sent four MV-22 Ospreys — hybrid aircraft that can take off like helicopters and fly like jets. Separately, the Philippine government is considering air-dropping supplies in far-flung areas that cannot otherwise be reached.
Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy, who is leading the U.S. relief mission in the Philippines, said he flew over much of the disaster area and saw the effects of what he called “a tsunami with the strength of a tornado 50 miles wide.”
“Every single palm tree was just ripped out of the ground. Strewn, just all over,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know that we have fully gotten our brains around the size of this problem.”
Corazon Juliano-Soliman, the secretary of the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development, said the lead agency tasked with coordinating the local and international humanitarian response had distributed more than 40,000 food packs to survivors.
Harlan reported from Cebu, Philippines.