Manila defends typhoon response

U.N. reports toll of nearly 4,500; many bodies lie uncollected

AP, AFP-JIJI

The Philippine government on Friday defended its efforts to deliver assistance to victims of Typhoon Haiyan, many of whom have received little or no assistance since the monster storm struck one week ago.

“In a situation like this, nothing is fast enough,” Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said in Tacloban, most of which was destroyed by the storm one week ago. “The need is massive, the need is immediate, and you can’t reach everyone.”

Government officials have given different actual and estimated death tolls for the storm. Given the scale of the disaster, and infrastructure and communications problems, this is not unusual.

The United Nations said Friday that the death toll was at least 4,460, citing regional officials. The spokesman for the Civil Defense Agency, Maj. Reynaldo Balido, said the figure had risen to 2,360. On the ground in Tacloban, authorities handed out a situation report stating that 3,422 people had been killed on Samar and Leyte islands, the two most affected areas.

Some officials estimate that the final toll, when the missing are declared dead and remote regions reached, will be more than 10,000. At least 600,000 people have been displaced.

Authorities are struggling to meet their immediate needs. This often occurs in the aftermath of major disasters, especially in already poor countries where local and national governments lack capacity. It often leads to criticism in some quarters.

The pace of the aid effort has picked up over the last 24 hours, according to reporters who have been in the region for several days. Foreign governments are dispatching food, water, medical supplies and trained staffers to the region.

A U.S. aircraft carrier is moored off the coast, preparing for a major relief mission. The fleet of helicopters on board is expected to drop food and water to the worst-affected areas.

A week after the typhoon, one of the strongest ever to tear through the Philippines, bodies still lie where they fell or were washed up.

The stench of bloated and discolored human flesh decomposing under the tropical sun hangs everywhere in Tacloban, where wretched survivors and rescue workers cover their mouths to keep the cloying smell from their throats.

Hundreds of bodies have been collected, put into body bags and trucked off to wrecked municipal buildings to await burial in mass graves, a process that city authorities began Thursday.

Officials and aid volunteers say the bodies that have been recovered are just the beginning, a small fraction of those that could be seen when the storm surge subsided. Many more, they say, lie under the mountains of debris.

“Leaving them (the bodies) just decaying on the roadside, uncollected, is next to unforgivable,” Catholic priest Amadeo Alvero said.

Officials initially said that picking up the bodies had to take second place to the effort to help those still living, many in utter destitution, their homes swept away and with precious little food or clean drinking water.

Echoing a fear expressed by many, Alvero said the dead could be the source of contagious disease.

“The government needs to act fast because this could also become a health issue,” he said.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona insisted the bodies do not pose a serious risk. Experts point out that a corpse can only carry a disease such as cholera if the disease was present before the person died. “We have to assure our countrymen that . . . there will not be an epidemic,” he said. “The one thing we want is to identify them so we can give some peace to their relatives.”

Identification is not always easy, for instance when whole families have died, leaving no-one around to ask.

The government says damage caused the typhoon may reduce economic growth this year to less than 7 percent.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said the government forecasts growth of between 6.5 percent and 7 percent, down from its previous estimate of 7.3 percent.