TACLOBAN, Philippines – The death toll from one of the strongest storms on record that ravaged the central Philippine city of Tacloban could reach 10,000 people, officials said today after the extent of massive devastation became apparent and horrified survivors spoke of storm surges as high as trees and winds sounding like the roar of a jumbo jet.
Regional police chief Elmer Soria said he was briefed by Leyte provincial Gov. Dominic Petilla late Saturday and was told there were about 10,000 deaths in the province, mostly by drowning and from collapsed buildings. The governor’s figure was based on reports from village officials in areas where Typhoon Haiyan slammed Friday.
Tacloban City Administrator Tecson Lim said the death toll in the city alone “could go up to 10,000.” Tacloban is the Leyte provincial capital of 200,000 people and the biggest city on Leyte Island.
About 300 to 400 bodies have already been recovered and there are “still a lot under the debris,” Lim said.
The typhoon barreled through six central Philippine islands Friday, wiping away buildings and leveling seaside homes with ferocious winds of 147 miles per hour and gusts of 170 mph. By those measurements, Haiyan would be comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane in the U.S., and nearly in the top category, a 5.
It weakened today to 101 mph with stronger gusts as it approached central and northern Vietnam, where authorities evacuated more than 500,000 people. It was forecast to make landfall Monday morning.
“The rescue operation is ongoing. We expect a very high number of fatalities as well as injured,” Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said after visiting Tacloban on Saturday. “All systems, all vestiges of modern living – communications, power, water – all are down. Media is down, so there is no way to communicate with the people in a mass sort of way.”
President Benigno Aquino III said the casualties “will be substantially more” than the official count of 151, but gave no figure or estimate. He said the government’s priority was to restore power and communications in isolated areas to allow for the delivery of relief and medical assistance to victims.
The U.S. and other governments and agencies were mounting a major relief effort “because of the magnitude of the disaster,” Philippine Red Cross Chairman Richard Gordon said.
Even by the standards of the Philippines, which is buffeted by many natural calamities – about 20 typhoons a year, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – the latest disaster shocked the impoverished nation of 96 million people.
The airport in Tacloban, about 360 miles southeast of Manila, looked like a muddy wasteland of debris, with crumpled tin roofs and upturned cars. The airport tower’s glass windows were shattered, and air force helicopters were busy flying in and out at the start of relief operations. Residential homes that had lined up a 4-mile stretch of road leading to Tacloban were all blown or washed away.
The winds were so strong that Tacloban residents who sought shelter at a local school tied down the roof of the building but it was still ripped off and the school collapsed, Lim said. It wasn’t clear how many died there.
“The devastation is – I don’t have the words for it,” Roxas said. “It’s really horrific. It’s a great human tragedy.”
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino was “speechless” when he told him of the devastation the typhoon had wrought in Tacloban.
“I told him all systems are down,” Gazmin said.
The city’s two largest malls and groceries were looted and the gasoline stations destroyed by the typhoon. Police were deployed to guard a fuel depot to prevent looting of fuel.
U.S. Marine Col. Mike Wylie surveyed the damage in Tacloban prior to possible American assistance. “The storm surge came in fairly high and there is significant structural damage and trees blown over,” said Wylie, a member of the U.S.-Philippines Military Assistance Group based in Manila.
At the request of the Philippine government, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed U.S. Pacific Command to deploy ships and aircraft to support search-and-rescue operations and airlift emergency supplies, according to a Defense Department statement released.