TACLOBAN CITY — Corpses hung from trees, were scattered on sidewalks or buried in flattened buildings — some of the thousands believed killed in one Philippine city alone by ferocious Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) that washed away homes and buildings with powerful winds and giant waves.
As the scale of devastation became clear on Nov. 10 from one of the worst storms ever recorded, officials said emergency crews could find more bodies when they reach parts of the archipelago cut off by flooding and landslides. Desperate residents raided grocery stores and gas stations in search of food, fuel and water as the government began relief efforts and international aid operations got underway.
Even in a nation regularly beset by earthquakes, volcanoes and tropical storms, Typhoon Haiyan appears to be the deadliest natural disaster on record.
Haiyan hit the eastern seaboard of the Philippines on Nov. 8 and quickly barreled across its central islands, packing winds of 235 kph (147 mph) that gusted to 275 kph (170 mph), and a storm surge of 6 meters (20 feet).
Hardest hit in the Philippines was Leyte Island, where regional Police Chief Elmer Soria said the provincial governor had told him there were about 10,000 dead, primarily from drowning and collapsed buildings. Most were in Tacloban, the provincial capital of about 200,000 people that is the biggest city on the island.
Reports also trickled in indicating deaths elsewhere on the island.
On Samar Island, Leo Dacaynos of the provincial disaster office said 300 people were confirmed dead in one town and another 2,000 were missing, with some towns yet to be reached by rescuers. He pleaded for food and water, adding that power was out and there was no cellphone signal, making communication possible only by radio.
Reports from other affected islands indicated dozens, perhaps hundreds more deaths.
With communications still knocked out in many areas, it was unclear how authorities were arriving at their estimates of the number of people killed, and it will be days before the full extent of the storm is known.
“On the way to the airport, we saw many bodies along the street,” said Philippine-born Australian Mila Ward, 53, who was waiting at the Tacloban airport to catch a military flight back to Manila, about 580 kilometers (360 miles) to the northwest. “They were covered with just anything — tarpaulin, roofing sheets, cardboard.” She said she passed “well over 100″ bodies.
In one part of Tacloban, a ship had been pushed ashore and sat amid damaged homes.
Haiyan inflicted serious damage to at least six of the archipelago’s more than 7,000 islands, with Leyte, Samar and the northern part of Cebu appearing to bear the brunt of the storm. About 4 million people were affected by the storm, the national disaster agency said.
The Philippine National Red Cross said its efforts were hampered by looters, including some who attacked trucks of food and other relief supplies it was shipping to Tacloban from the southern port of Davao.
Tacloban’s two largest malls and grocery stores were looted, and police guarded a fuel depot. About 200 police officers were sent into Tacloban to restore law and order.
With other rampant looting reported, 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.
The massive casualties occurred even though the government had evacuated nearly 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon.
Challenged to respond to a disaster of such magnitude, the Philippine government also accepted help from abroad.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that he and his wife, Michelle, were “deeply saddened” by the deaths and damage from the typhoon. He said the U.S. was providing “significant humanitarian assistance” and was ready to assist in relief and recovery efforts.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the Pacific Command to deploy ships and aircraft to support search-and-rescue operations and fly in emergency supplies.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “extremely concerned” by the widespread destruction and the steeply rising death toll, according to a statement released by his office.
Pope Francis led tens of thousands of people at the Vatican in prayer for the victims. The Philippines has the largest number of Catholics in Asia, and Filipinos are one of Rome’s biggest immigrant communities.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino was “speechless” when he told him of the devastation in Tacloban.
“I told him all systems are down,” Gazmin said. “There is no power, no water, nothing. People are desperate. They’re looting.”
“The devastation is … I don’t have the words for it,” Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said. “It’s really horrific. It’s a great human tragedy.” (Associated Press)