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Relief teams rush to typhoon-devastated Philippines

Looting breaks out as people search for food, and a witness reports hundreds of bodies in the streets. As many flee, others stream in to search for loved ones.

November 10, 2013|By Sunshine de Leon and Barbara Demick
  • The Philippine city of Tacloban is left in ruins by Typhoon Haiyan.
The Philippine city of Tacloban is left in ruins by Typhoon Haiyan. (Ted Aljibe / AFP/Getty Images )

MANILA — With the vast scale of death and destruction slowly coming into focus, international relief teams rushed toward the central Philippines, where one of the strongest storms on record left bereft survivors looting food and water or scrambling for a way out.

Aid agencies said they were hurrying supplies to the area hit early Friday by the typhoon. U.S. Marines were en route from bases in Okinawa, Japan, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the Pacific Command to deploy helicopters, logistics officers and cargo planes to assist the effort.

Initial reports suggested that the Philippines had escaped widespread loss of life from fast-moving Typhoon Haiyan, called Yolanda by Filipinos. But as reports trickled in Sunday from areas that had been cut off from the rest of the country, it became clear that the nation had suffered a major natural disaster.

The storm weakened over the South China Sea after leaving the Philippines, and made landfall in Vietnam on Monday. Thousands of people there had been evacuated as a precaution.

In the Philippines, police Supt. Elmer Soria told reporters that officials on the island of Leyte had estimated 10,000 deaths. The U.S. Agency for International Development said that in some parts of the central Philippines, 90% of the housing had been destroyed.

"There was death everywhere," said Danny Larsen, a 35-year-old Dane, who arrived Sunday at a military air base in Manila from Leyte's main city, Tacloban.

With few if any cars around and no gas available, Larsen said he walked about 10 miles to the airport from a village where he had ridden out the typhoon in a basement. The road was like "death row," he said. Multi-story buildings had been reduced to heaps of broken concrete, and bodies were strewn about.

"There were people — babies, children, old people — lying out on the street, with blisters over their bodies … hundreds of them," said Larsen.

Television footage showed wooden houses in splinters, cars floating on their sides through floodwaters, upended trees and telephone poles and houses with their roofs blown off.

Many of the most desperate remained trapped in remote, mud-choked coastal towns without power, transportation or telephones.

In Tacloban, a city of 220,000, officials said that more than 100 bodies had been found on the airport grounds alone. The homeless and injured crowded around the airport hoping to escape, or at least to find food or fresh water.

Larsen, who had moved to Tacloban two weeks earlier with his girlfriend, said he had waited eight hours with about 1,000 people to get on a cargo plane to Manila. Their main concern was not the typhoon damage but the lawlessness.

"Everything is being looted.... There is no law enforcement — it's a free-for-all," he said. "Hotels, everything, cash registers, even McDonald's.... It is World War III."

As reports trickled in from more far-flung areas, there were more tales of death and destruction.

"We just made a mass grave for 57 people," Mayor Edgar Boco of the small coastal town of Hernani told reporters.

While survivors tried to escape, dozens of others in Manila were hoping to catch a ride on a transport plane from Manila's Villamor Air Base to the scene of the disaster in hopes of finding out what happened to loved ones.

Evangelista Sumalbag said she was sick with worry about her sister and daughter, a 28-year-old police officer in Tacloban.

"I can't describe my feelings today. I don't have contact, and I don't know what happened to them," said Sumalbag, wiping tears.

"I don't want to see the TV anymore, because it hurts me. I am unable to watch all that devastation."

The typhoon hit the eastern coast of the Philippines with winds estimated at 147 mph, gusting to 170 mph, and a storm surge of about 20 feet. The death toll appeared likely to be far in excess of the Philippines' largest from previous natural disasters — a 1976 earthquake and a 1991 storm that each killed more than 5,000 people.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III toured the area by helicopter Sunday, landing in Tacloban. Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said the storm destroyed everything in its path.

"From a helicopter, you can see the extent of devastation. From the shore and moving a kilometer inland, there are no structures standing," Reuters news service quoted him as saying. "I don't know how to describe what I saw. It's horrific."

An initial USAID survey said the cities of Tacloban and Ormoc were "wiped out," Jeremy Konyndyk, the agency's director of foreign disaster assistance, said in a statement.

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