TACLOBAN, Philippines – Stunned survivors of one of the most powerful typhoons ever to make landfall picked through the remains of their homes Monday and pleaded for food and medicine as the Philippines struggled to deal with what is likely its deadliest natural disaster.
Authorities said at least 2 million people in 41 provinces had been affected by Friday’s disaster and at least 23,000 houses had been damaged or destroyed. Large areas along the coast had been transformed into twisted piles of debris, blocking roads and trapping decomposing bodies underneath. Ships were tossed inland, cars and trucks swept out to sea and bridges and ports washed away. “In some cases the devastation has been total,” said Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras.
In Leyte province, the badly hit city of Tacloban resembled a garbage dump from the air, punctuated only by a few concrete buildings that remained standing.
The official death toll stood at 942 people, but two provincial officials said Sunday it could reach 10,000 or more. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said “we pray” that the death toll is less than 10,000.
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.
“Please tell my family I’m alive,” said Erika Mae Karakot, a survivor on the island of Leyte, as she lined up for aid. “We need water and medicine because a lot of the people we are with are wounded. Some are suffering from diarrhea and dehydration due to shortage of food and water.”
Even though authorities had evacuated some 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon, the death toll was predicted to be high because many evacuation centers — brick-and-mortar schools, churches and government buildings — could not withstand the winds and water surges. Officials said people who had huddled in these buildings drowned or were swept away.
The U.S. military dispatched water, generators and a contingent of Marines from bases in Okinawa Prefecture to the worst-hit city along the country’s remote eastern seaboard, the first outside help in what will swell into a major international relief mission in the coming days. Two U.S. C-130 transport planes flew from Manila’s Vilamor air base to Tacloban.
The Japanese government said Monday that it would send a medical team to the country.
The team consists of around 25 medical experts, including doctors, nurses and pharmacists from the Japan Disaster Relief Team, according to the government.
“We’d like to extend as much support as we can, based on local needs and requests from the Philippine government,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference.
Tokyo sent two officials from the Foreign Ministry and the Japan International Cooperation Agency on Sunday to assess the situation in the country.
Many other foreign governments have also pledged help, with Australia donating nearly $10 million, while United Nations leader Ban Ki-moon promised U.N. humanitarian agencies would “respond rapidly to help people in need.”
Meanwhile, survivors wandered through the remains of their flattened wooden homes, hoping to salvage belongings or find loved ones.Residents have stripped malls, shops and homes of food, water and consumer goods. Officials said some of the looting smacked of desperation but in other cases items taken included TVs, refrigerators, Christmas trees and a treadmill. A reporter in the town said he saw around 400 special forces and soldiers patrolling downtown to guard against further chaos.
“We’re afraid that it’s going to get dangerous in town because relief goods are trickling in very slow,” said Bobbie Womack, an American missionary and longtime Tacloban resident from Athens, Tennessee. “I know it’s a massive, massive undertaking to try to feed a town of over 150,000 people. They need to bring in shiploads of food.”
Philippine 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.
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.”
Haiyan hit the eastern seaboard of the Philippines on Friday and quickly barreled across its central islands, packing winds of 235 kph that gusted to 275 kph, and a storm surge of 6 meters.
It inflicted serious damage to at least six islands in the middle of the eastern seaboard, with Leyte, Samar and the northern part of Cebu appearing to bear the brunt of the storm.
Video from Eastern Samar province’s Guiuan township — the first area where the typhoon made landfall — showed a trail of devastation similar to Tacloban. Many houses were flattened and roads were strewn with debris and uprooted trees. The ABS-CBN video showed several bodies on the street, covered with blankets.
The United Nations said it was sending supplies but access to the worst hit areas was a challenge.
“Reaching the worst affected areas is very difficult, with limited access due to the damage caused by the typhoon to infrastructure and communications,” said UNICEF Philippines Representative Tomoo Hozumi.
Still, there was a rare piece of good news in Tacloban on Monday.
Cheers broke out in the city’s typhoon-devastated airport when 21-year-old Emily Ortega gave birth to a baby girl.
Ortega cried tears of joy after giving birth to the “miracle” girl, then named the baby after her mother, who remains missing in the storm.
Ortega gave birth in a destroyed airport compound that was turned into a makeshift medical center, with her bed a piece of dirty plywood resting amid dirt, broken glass, twisted metal, nails and other debris.
“She is so beautiful. I will name her Bea Joy in honor of my mother, Beatriz,” Ortega whispered shortly after giving birth.
Ortega said her mother was swept away when giant waves generated by Haiyan surged into their home near Tacloban. She has not been seen since.
“We are supposed to be celebrating today, but we are also mourning our dead,” Ortega’s husband, Jobert, said.
The storm’s sustained winds weakened to 120 kph as the typhoon made landfall in northern Vietnam early Monday after crossing the South China Sea, according to the Hong Kong meteorological observatory. Authorities there evacuated hundreds of thousands of people, but there were no reports of significant damage or injuries.
It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it entered southern China later Monday, and weather officials forecast torrential rain over the coming 24 hours across southern China. Guangxi officials advised fishermen to stay onshore.
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 nation 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.