Aid begins to move as Philippine typhoon death toll jumps
Officials in Tacloban estimate 4,000 have died as bodies are placed in mass graves
The death toll from a powerful typhoon doubled overnight in one Philippine city alone, reaching 4,000, as helicopters from a US aircraft carrier and other naval ships began flying food, water and medical teams to ravaged regions.
President Benigno Aquino has faced mounting pressure to speed up the distribution of aid and also come under criticism over unclear estimates of casualties, especially in Tacloban, capital of hardest-hit Leyte province.
A notice board in Tacloban City Hall estimated the deaths at 4,000, up from 2,000 a day before. The toll, written in blue marker on a whiteboard easel, is compiled by local officials who started burying bodies in a mass grave.
Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez said some people may have been swept out to sea and their bodies lost after a tsunami-like wall of seawater slammed into coastal areas. One neighbourhood had a population of between 10,000 and 12,000, and now was completely deserted, he said.
The City Hall toll is the first public acknowledgement that the number of fatalities would likely far exceed an estimate given this week by Aquino, who said the loss of life from Typhoon Haiyan would be closer to 2,000 or 2,500.
Official confirmed deaths nationwide stood at 2,357 on Friday after the typhoon, one of the strongest ever recorded, roared across the central Philippines a week ago. Adding to the confusion, the United Nations, citing government figures, put the latest overall death toll at 4,460.
Mr Aquino has said estimates of 10,000 dead by local officials were overstated and caused by “emotional trauma”. Elmer Soria, a regional police chief who made that estimate to media, was removed from his post yesterday.
A police spokesman said Soria was due to be transferred to headquarters in Manila. But a senior police official told Reuters he believed Soria was re-assigned because of his unauthorised casualty estimate.
Survivors have grown increasingly desperate and angry over the pace of aid distribution, which has been hindered by paralysed local governments, widespread looting, a lack of fuel for rescue vehicles and debris-choked roads.
The dead are still being buried. Many corpses remain uncovered on roadsides or under splintered homes.
Foreign aid officials have called the disaster unprecedented for the Philippines.
“There is utter devastation. People are desperate for food, water, shelter, supplies and information about their loved ones,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters during a visit to Latvia. “We are doing everything possible to rush assistance to those who need it.”
The USS George Washington aircraft carrier and accompanying ships arrived off eastern Samar province yesterday evening, carrying 5,000 crew and more than 80 aircraft. The carrier moved some fixed-wing aircraft ashore to make more room for the helicopters on its flight deck.
US sailors have brought food and water ashore in Tacloban and the town of Guiuan.
Mr Aquino has been on the defensive over his handling of the storm, given warnings of its projected strength and the risk of a storm surge, and now the pace of relief efforts.
He has said the death toll might have been higher had it not been for the evacuation of people and the readying of relief supplies, but survivors say they had little warning of any seawater surge.
More than 920,000 people have been displaced, the United Nations said. But many areas still have not received aid.
“It’s true, there are still areas that we have not been able to get to where people are in desperate need,” UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told reporters in Manila. “I very much hope that in the next 48 hours, that will change significantly.
“Yes, I do feel that we have let people down because we have not been able to get in more quickly.”