Scale of destruction hampers typhoon relief effort

Death toll expected to rise above 10,000 as mass graves dug in devastated areas of Philippines

The scene in Tacloban city, central Philippines, yesterday, after thousands of homes were destroyed when Typhoon Haiyan battered the city. Photograph: Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

The scene in Tacloban city, central Philippines, yesterday, after thousands of homes were destroyed when Typhoon Haiyan battered the city. Photograph: Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

Mon, Nov 11, 2013, 01:00

To get to Tacloban, the small coastal city in Leyte province in the Philippines flattened on Friday by typhoon Haiyan, you have to manoeuvre around piled-up dead bodies, uprooted trees, jagged pieces of debris, and survivors searching for food, water and supplies.

This city of 220,000 bore the brunt of the 195mph winds that made landfall and tore away roofs and ripped apart buildings. Six-metre high storm surges turned roads into rivers of sewage and seawater, landing ships on top of houses and obliterating bridges and roads.

At least 10,000 people are thought to be dead so far in Leyte province alone, with the toll expected to rise.

Desperate measures
Without clean water, food or medicine, Tacloban survivors have begun raiding houses, shops and malls to find supplies and goods to barter for food.

One shop-owner was photographed defending his store with a pistol, while reports emerged of aid convoys being hijacked and ATMs robbed.

Local officials warned President Benigno Aquino, who visited Tacloban yesterday, that residents from neighbouring towns were entering the city to steal supplies, and requested that he declare martial law.

Survivors, authorities and media crowd into the shell which is all that remains of Tacloban Airport. A makeshift command centre from which the army finally began, yesterday, to deliver supplies, it is also the only way out for many survivors, who are queuing hundreds deep in an effort to leave the chaos behind.

The airport has also been turned into a makeshift morgue to house the growing number of dead. Mass graves have also been dug to accommodate the remains. Police chief Elmer Soria believes most people drowned or were crushed to death by crumbling buildings.

“It was like a tsunami,” said Philippines interior secretary Mar Roxas, who visited Tacloban this weekend by helicopter. “I don’t know how to describe what I saw. It’s horrific.”

Scale of disaster
With communications still down across vast swathes of the hardest hit areas, it is impossible to judge the scale of the destruction. Aid agencies say it has been impossible to reach all those affected, with airports and harbours across the country closed or badly disrupted.

Emergency teams have been forced to try to reach survivors on foot. Aya Lowe from Samar island, who drove to Tacloban from Manila to assess the damage, said the roads in and out of the town were at a standstill.

“We came across the main bridge towards Tacloban and there was just a huge traffic jam,” she said. “There were people coming in on mopeds and families trying to find their loved ones, and people coming out with boxes of shampoo and mayonnaise and random stuff.”

Luiza Carvalho, the UN’s resident co-ordinator for the Philippines, said it was vital that aid agencies reach those stranded in isolated areas.

“They are at risk of further threats such as malnutrition, exposure to bad weather and unsafe drinking water,” she said.

If the estimated death toll is accurate, Haiyan could emerge as the deadliest natural catastrophe in Philippino history.

More than 350,000 people are awaiting supplies in 1,220 evacuation centres across the country, with more than 4.3 million affected by Haiyan, said Orla Fagan of UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She said areas were still 80 per cent under water.

UN teams have been dispatched south and north of Tacloban and to Ilo Ilo, to the west of Leyte and Samar islands, to assess the damage there. – (Guardian service)