TACLOBAN, Philippines – Thousands of typhoon survivors swarmed the airport here today seeking a flight out, but only a few hundred made it, leaving behind a shattered, rain-lashed city short of food and water and littered with countless bodies.
Four days after Typhoon Haiyan struck the eastern Philippines, assistance is only just beginning to arrive. Authorities estimated the storm killed 10,000 or more across a vast swath of the country and displaced about 660,000 others.
Tacloban, a city of about 220,000 people on Leyte Island, bore the full force of the winds and the tsunami-like storm surges. Most of the city is in ruins, a tangled mess of destroyed houses, cars and trees. Malls, garages and shops have all been stripped of food and water by hungry residents.
The United Nations said it had released $25 million in emergency funds and was launching an emergency appeal for money.
Just after dawn today, two Philippine air force C-130s arrived at its destroyed airport along with several commercial and private flights. More than 3,000 people who camped out at the building surged onto the tarmac past a broken iron fence to get on the aircraft. Just a dozen soldiers and several police held them back.
Mothers raised their babies high above their heads in the rain, in hopes of being prioritized. One woman in her 30s lay on a stretcher, shaking uncontrollably. Only a small number managed to board.
“I was pleading with the soldiers. I was kneeling and begging because I have diabetes,” said Helen Cordial, whose house was destroyed in the storm. “Do they want me to die in this airport? They are stone-hearted.”
Most residents spent the night under pouring rain wherever they could – in the ruins of destroyed houses, in the open along roadsides and shredded trees. Some slept under tents brought in by the government or relief groups.
Local doctors said they were desperate for medicines. Beside the ruined airport tower, at a small makeshift clinic with shattered windows, army and air force medics said they had treated about 1,000 people since the typhoon for cuts, bruises, lacerations, deep wounds.
International aid groups and militaries are rushing assistance to the region, but little has arrived. Government officials and police and army officers have all been caught up in the disaster themselves, hampering coordination.
The USS George Washington aircraft carrier was expected to arrive off the coast in about two days, according to the Pentagon. A similar-size U.S. ship, and its fleet of helicopters capable of dropping tons of water daily and evacuating the wounded, was credited with saving scores of lives after the 2004 Asian tsunami.
The United Nations said in a statement that the $25 million would be used to pay for emergency shelter materials and household items, and for assistance with the provision of emergency health services, safe water supplies and sanitation facilities.
The dead, decomposing and stinking, litter the streets or remain trapped in the debris.
At a small naval base, eight swollen corpses – including that of a baby – were submerged in water brought in by the storm. Officers had yet to move them, saying they had no body bags or electricity to preserve them.
The official death toll rose to 1,744. However, with shattered communications and transportation links, the final count was likely days away, and presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said “we pray” it does not surpass 10,000.
“I don’t believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way – every single building, every single house,” U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy said after taking a helicopter flight over Tacloban on Monday. He spoke on the tarmac at the airport, where two Marine C-130 cargo planes were parked, engines running, unloading supplies.
Authorities said at least 9.7 million people in 41 provinces were affected by the typhoon, known as Haiyan elsewhere in Asia but called Yolanda in the Philippines. It was likely the deadliest natural disaster to beset this poor Southeast Asian nation.
Authorities said they had evacuated 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon, but many evacuation centers proved to be no protection against the wind and rising water. The Philippine National Red Cross, responsible for warning the region and giving advice, said people were not prepared for a storm surge.
“Imagine America, which was prepared and very rich, still had a lot of challenges at the time of Hurricane Katrina, but what we had was three times more than what they received,” said Gwendolyn Pang, the group’s executive director.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III declared a “state of national calamity,” allowing the central government to release emergency funds quicker and impose price controls on staple goods. He said the two worst-hit provinces, Leyte and Samar, had witnessed “massive destruction and loss of life” but that elsewhere casualties were low.
The Philippines, an archipelago nation of more than 7,000 islands, is annually buffeted by tropical storms and typhoons, which are called hurricanes and cyclones elsewhere. The impoverished and densely populated nation of 96 million people is in the northwestern Pacific, right in the path of the world’s No. 1 typhoon generator, according to meteorologists. The archipelago’s exposed eastern seaboard often bears the brunt.
Even by the standards of the Philippines, however, Haiyan was an especially large catastrophe. Its winds were among the strongest ever recorded, and it appears to have killed more people than the previous deadliest Philippine storm, Thelma, in which about 5,100 people died in the central Philippines in 1991.
The country’s deadliest disaster on record was the 1976 magnitude-7.9 earthquake that triggered a tsunami in the Moro Gulf in the southern Philippines, killing 5,791 people.