TACLOBAN, PHILIPPINES – Workers in this typhoon-shattered city buried 100 of its thousands of dead in a hillside mass burial Thursday as desperately needed aid began to reach some of the half-million people displaced by the disaster.
Dozens more bodies were lined up in bags outside Tacloban City Hall waiting to be taken to burial sites. Six days after Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines, many of the dead were still lying along roads as survivors searched for bodies buried under the rubble.
Philippine soldiers on trucks distributed rice and water as chainsaw-wielding teams cut debris from blocked roads. Thousands more swarmed the city’s damaged airport, desperate to leave or to get treatment at a makeshift medical center.
The aircraft carrier USS George Washington arrived in the Philippine Sea near the Gulf of Leyte Thursday, and will set up a position off the coast of Samar Island to assess the damage and provide medical and water supplies, the 7th Fleet said in a statement.
The carrier and its strike group together bring 21 helicopters to the area, which can help reach the most inaccessible areas.
Authorities say 2,357 people have been confirmed dead in the disaster, but that figure is expected to rise, perhaps significantly, when information is collected from other areas of the disaster zone.
In the city’s first mass burial, 100 bodies in leaking black bags were lowered into graves without any prayers being said.
John Cajipe, 31, and three teenage boys who work at the local cemetery placed the first body in the grave’s right hand corner. Sweat rolled down their faces in the blistering sun as they carried the body.
The second body followed two minutes later, carefully placed alongside the first. And so on, until scores of bodies — all unidentifed — filled the grave.
“I hope this is the last time I see something like this,” said Mayor Alfred Romualdez. “When I look at this, it just reminds me of what has happened from the day the storm hit until today.”
Officials said efforts had been made to identify the bodies so families have a chance of finding out what happened to their loved ones in the days and weeks to come. It was not immediately clear whether this included DNA testing.
In addition to the USS George Washington, about a half dozen other U.S. ships — including a destroyer and two huge supply vessels — are already in the area, along with two P-3 aircraft that are being used to survey the damage from the sky so that planners can assess where aid is most needed, the 7th Fleet said.
“We are operating 24-7,” said Capt. Cassandra Gesecki, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Marines, who have set up an operations hub near Manila’s international airport. “We are inundated with flights.”
Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief who toured Tacloban on Wednesday, said some 11.5 million people have been affected by the typhoon, which includes people who lost their loved ones, were injured, and suffered damage to their homes, business or livelihoods.
“The situation is dismal . . . tens of thousands of people are living in the open . . . exposed to rain and wind,” she told reporters in Manila on Thursday.
Aid has been slow to reach the 545,000 people displaced by the storm that tore across several islands in eastern Philippines on Nov. 8. Most of the casualties occurred in Leyte province, its capital Tacloban, and Samar island. Many bodies are still lying along the roads in the city and others are buried under debris.
She said the immediate priority for humanitarian agencies over the next few days is to transport and distribute high energy biscuits and other food, tarpaulins, tents, clean drinking water and basic sanitation services.
“I think we are all extremely distressed that this is Day 6 and we have not managed to reach everyone,” she said.
The first nighttime flights — of C-130 transport planes — arrived since the typhoon struck, suggesting air control systems are now in place for a 24-7 operation — a prerequisite for the massive relief operation needed.
Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim said 70 percent of the city’s 220,000 people are in need of emergency assistance, and that only 70 of the city’s 2,700 employees have been showing up for work.
He also stuck to an earlier estimate that 10,000 people had died in Tacloban even though President Benigno Aquino III has said the final death toll would top 2,500.
While there is no shortage of aid material — both domestic and international — much of it is stuck in Manila and the nearby airport of Cebu because of the extensive damage that Tacloban airport suffered. Some of it, including food, water and medical supplies from the U.S., Malaysia and Singapore, had reached Tacloban and sat on pallets along the tarmac.
Amos said because of a lack of fuel in Tacloban, the few trucks on the ground are unable to move the aid material from the airport to the city. The weather also remains a challenge, with frequent downpours. The good news is that the debris on the road from the airport to the city has been pushed to one side, she said.
On Wednesday, the U.N.’s World Food Program distributed rice and other items to nearly 50,000 people in the Tacloban area. Nearly 10 tons of high energy biscuits were also delivered to the city Wednesday, with another 25 tons on the way.
Philippine Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla said it may take six weeks before the first typhoon-hit towns get their electric power back. He said that in Tacloban, order needed to be restored “because if there’s no peace and order, it’s hard to reinstall the power posts.”
He said army troops had fired shots Wednesday to drive away a group of armed men who approached a power transmission substation in Leyte province. The unidentified men fired back then fled. Nobody was hurt.