Philippines fears massive death toll as Typhoon Haiyan wreaks havoc

MANILA — A massive relief effort in the central Philippines was being hampered early Tuesday by the wreckage of one of the largest and deadliest storms of the century, a super typhoon that left trees splintered on the streets, bodies festering in open view and desperate towns short of food and water.

The destruction across a chain of Philippine islands leaves authorities with a relief operation both urgent and complicated, and of a scale exceeding any other in the history of this disaster-prone nation.


Videos show Typhoon Haiyan’s charge across Philippines
Click Here to View Full Graphic Story

Videos show Typhoon Haiyan’s charge across Philippines

Disaster in Tacloban, Philippines: Chasers document “ghastly” scene

Disaster in Tacloban, Philippines: Chasers document “ghastly” scene

Distressing first-hand accounts and video footage from Tacloban city in the Philippines, which was dealt the brunt of super typhoon Haiyan.

Rescue workers have reached many of the areas hit four days ago by Typhoon Haiyan, but others remain inaccessible. Pharmacies have been swept away and hospitals gutted. Looters have hauled away medical supplies, according to local media accounts. The half-dozen provinces hit most directly by Haiyan’s 150 mph winds still lack electricity or mobile connections. In some remote areas, relief can come only by boat or helicopter.

A clearer picture of the destruction came more fully into view early Tuesday as a wave of emergency workers reported conditions on the ground and the Philippine military provided aerial photos of towns ground into wood beams and rubble. Photos also showed survivors walking the streets, holding clothes against their noses to block the stench of bodies.

The typhoon cut a path through the middle of this island country — a direct hit on about 10 percent of the population. Up to 10,000 are feared dead in Tacloban city alone, according to unconfirmed accounts, and thousands across the region are missing.

“It is really a massive disaster,” said Sandra Bulling, an emergency communications officer at CARE, a humanitarian agency, who made it to a village 20 miles from Tacloban on Monday. “Aid is slowly getting through, and the local authorities have started distributing. But what the municipalities are telling us is, they’re running out of their stock, and now they’re really relying on international support.”

In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and other Navy ships “to make best speed” for the Philippines, the Pentagon announced Monday. The carrier, with 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft on board, was dispatched from Hong Kong, where it was on a port visit. It was being accompanied by two cruisers, a destroyer and a supply ship. Another destroyer got underway for the region on Sunday.

“As needed, these ships and aircraft will be able to provide humanitarian assistance, supplies, and medical care in support of the ongoing efforts” led by the Philippine government and military, the Pentagon said. It said the flotilla should arrive in two or three days.

After ravaging the central Philippines, the super typhoon touched down in central Vietnam early Monday.

On its rampage across the region, Haiyan had much the look of a tsunami, with waves as high as two-story buildings.

President Benigno Aquino III, who traveled by helicopter to Tacloban on Sunday, said the government had deployed several hundred soldiers to “show the strength of the state and deter further looting,” according to his official Web site.

As of Sunday evening, the government had confirmed only 229 deaths, but Aquino said the official numbers will rise “substantially.”

Typhoon Haiyan threatened to become the deadliest disaster in Philippine history, surpassing Tropical Storm Thelma, which killed 5,000 people in 1991. With sustained wind speeds of 150 to 170 mph, Haiyan is among the strongest storms on record.

“Tacloban is totally destroyed,” schoolteacher Andrew Pomeda told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “Some people are losing their minds from hunger or from losing their families. People are becoming violent. They are looting business establishments, the malls, just to find food. I’m afraid that in one week, people will be killing from hunger.”

The latest Philippine government estimates suggest that 9.5 million people — about 10 percent of the country — have been affected, with more than 600,000 displaced from their homes. Many roads remain impassable, according to the U.N. office responsible for humanitarian affairs, and some of the injured have no access to medical care. Even in Tacloban, one of the first areas accessed by aid workers, it takes six hours to make the 14-mile round trip between the airport and the city because of the damage, officials said.

“It is vital that we reach those who are stranded in isolated areas as they are at risk of further threats such as malnutrition, exposure to bad weather and unsafe drinking water,” said Luiza Car­valho, a U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Philippines.

Destruction and looting

Tacloban, with a population of 220,000, is the capital of Leyte province, a mountainous island roughly the size of Delaware. On Samar, a slightly larger island nearby, Leo Dacaynos of the provincial disaster office told the Associated Press that 300 people were dead, 2,000 were missing and parts of the island had not been contacted. Both Samar and Leyte are on the eastern side of the Philippine archipelago; reports about islands on the western side remain sparse.

Although the storm occurred Friday, a picture of the damage is emerging only now as communication lines slowly reopen.

On Monday morning, local news media in Manila reported heavily on security worries in the devastated areas. Video footage showed crowds ramming into the Gaisano mall in Tacloban and hauling out supplies, including clothing, suitcases and an ice cream freezer.

Reports emphasized that communication infrastructure is heavily damaged, slowing the emergency response. Even in Tacloban, mobile service is not possible.

“There is a need for food and water,” said Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross. “But we have yet to assess the full damage” because some areas are cut off.

The Philippines ranks among the world’s most disaster-prone countries and is hit annually by about 20 typhoons that build in the Pacific’s deep, warm ocean water. The country is especially susceptible to damage because of ramshackle infrastructure. Many residents in the poorer areas live in shacks with corrugated metal roofs.

A typhoon in December killed more than 1,900 people. And a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Bohol province last month, killing more than 200. The World Bank said last year that the Philippines loses about 0.8 percent of its gross domestic product to disasters.

In the aftermath of Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda, photos and videos showed towns pulverized into what looked like piles of matchsticks, with a few wind-whipped palm trees the last remnants of a skyline.

In Tacloban, the airport was reduced to twisted beams. Ships and tankers were flung onto shore. Philippine television reported that ATMs, malls and grocery stores were being looted.

With a massive relief operation underway, the Philippine Red Cross told the AP that its efforts were being hampered by looters, including some who attacked trucks of food and other relief supplies that the agency was shipping Sunday from the southern port city of Davao to Tacloban.

The government said Saturday that it would speed up aid and food distribution to victims. “We have to move fast considering the extent of the devastation. People in the worst-hit areas need food, water and medicines,” Corazon Juliano-Soliman, secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, said in a statement posted on the Web site of the president’s office.

“The information we’re receiving is that there’s total structural damage,” Asaka Nyangara, the U.N. World Food Program’s deputy country director in the Philippines, said in a telephone interview. “It’s not easy to access the area, and using the military is the only way to get in.”

Asked about security concerns, he said that relief supplies are “being escorted by police, and that only shows how desperate the situation is. But it seems that things are under control.”

In a statement Sunday, President Obama said that the United States is prepared to help the Philippines recover and that he and first lady Michelle Obama are deeply saddened by the deaths and destruction caused by the disaster.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the military’s Pacific Command to send ships and aircraft to help with search-and-rescue operations and carry emergency supplies to those in need.

Obama said the United States is providing significant humanitarian assistance, “and we stand ready to further assist the Government’s relief and recovery efforts.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the millions of people affected by this devastating storm,” he said.

Haiyan made landfall in Vietnam early Monday, but it has weakened significantly.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese have been evacuated and are cramming into storm shelters. The storm is expected to cause major flooding in several heavily populated areas, including Hanoi. In the meantime, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent notes to neighbors in the South China Sea, including China, asking them to help Vietnamese fishermen in distress.

Central Vietnam has been hit by two other typhoons this season — Wutip and Nari — which, combined, destroyed thousands of homes.

Harlan reported from Seoul.

Read what others are saying