TACLOBAN, Philippines – Thousands of typhoon survivors swarmed the airport here on Tuesday seeking a flight out, but only a few hundred made it, leaving behind a shattered, rain-lashed city short of food and water and littered with countless bodies.
Four days after Typhoon Haiyan struck the eastern Philippines, only a trickle of assistance has made to affected communities. Authorities estimated the storm killed 10,000 or more across a vast swath of the country. Millions are without shelter or food.
Tacloban, a city of about 220,000 people on Leyte island, bore the full force of the winds and the tsunami-like storm surges. Most of the city is in ruins, a tangled mess of destroyed houses, cars and trees. Malls, garages and shops have all been stripped of food and water by hungry residents.
Just after dawn Tuesday, two Philippine Air Force C-130s arrived at its destroyed airport along with several commercial and private flights. More than 3,000 people who camped out at the building surged onto the tarmac past a broken iron fence to get on the aircraft. Just a dozen soldiers and several police held them back.
Mothers raised their babies high above their heads in the rain, in hopes of being prioritized. One lady in her thirties lay on a stretcher, shaking uncontrollably. Only a small number managed to board.
“I was pleading with the soldiers. I was kneeling and begging because I have diabetes,” said Helen Cordial, whose house was destroyed in the storm. “Do they want me to die in this airport? They are stone hearted.”
Most residents spent Monday night under pouring rain wherever they could — in the ruins of destroyed houses, in the open along roadsides and shredded trees. Some slept under tents brought in by the government or relief groups.
Local doctors said they were desperate for medicines. Beside the ruined airport tower, at a small makeshift clinic with shattered windows, army and air force medics said they had treated around 1,000 people since the typhoon for cuts, bruises, lacerations, deep wounds.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Air Force Capt. Antonio Tamayo. “We need more medicine. We cannot give anti-tetanus vaccine shots because we have none.”
International aid groups and militaries are rushing assistance to the region, but little has arrived yet. Government officials and police and army officers have all been caught up in the disaster themselves, hampering coordination.
The USS George Washington aircraft carrier was expected to arrive off the coast in about two days, according to the Pentagon. A similar sized US ship, and its fleet of helicopters capable of dropping tons of water daily and evacuating wounded, was credited with saving scores of lives after the 2004 Asian tsunami.
Joselito Caimoy, a 42-year-old truck driver, was one of the lucky ones at Tacloban airport.
He was able to get his wife, son and 3-year-old daughter on a flight out.
They embraced in a tearful goodbye, but Caimoy stayed behind to guard what’s left of his home and property.
“There is no water, no food,” he said. “People are just scavenging in the streets. People are asking food from relatives, friends. The devastation is too much ... the malls, the grocery stories have all been looted. They’re empty. People are hungry. And they [the authorities] cannot control the people.”
The dead, decomposing and stinking, litter the streets or remain trapped in the debris.
At a small naval base, eight swollen corpses – including that of a baby – were submerged in water brought in by the storm. Officers had yet to move them, saying they had no body bags or electricity to preserve them.
The official death remained at 942. However, with shattered communications and transportation links, the final count was likely days away, and presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said “we pray” it does not surpass 10,000.
“I don’t believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way – every single building, every single house,” U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy said after taking a helicopter flight over Tacloban on Monday. He spoke on the tarmac at the airport, where two Marine C-130 cargo planes were parked, engines running, unloading supplies.
Authorities said at least 9.7 million people in 41 provinces were affected by the typhoon, known as Haiyan elsewhere in Asia but called Yolanda in the Philippines. It was likely the deadliest natural disaster to beset this poor Southeast Asian nation.
Authorities said they had evacuated 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon, but many evacuation centers proved to be no protection against the wind and rising water. The Philippine National Red Cross, responsible for warning the region and giving advice, said people were not prepared for a storm surge.
“Imagine America, which was prepared and very rich, still had a lot of challenges at the time of Hurricane Katrina, but what we had was three times more than what they received,” said Gwendolyn Pang, the group’s executive director.
In Tacloban, residents stripped malls, shops and homes of food, water and consumer goods. Officials said some of the looting smacked of desperation but in other cases people hauled away TVs, refrigerators, Christmas trees and even a treadmill. An Associated Press reporter said he saw about 400 special forces and soldiers patrolling downtown to guard against further chaos.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III declared a “state of national calamity,” allowing the central government to release emergency funds quicker and impose price controls on staple goods. He said the two worst-hit provinces, Leyte and Samar, had witnessed “massive destruction and loss of life” but that elsewhere casualties were low.
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 impoverished and densely populated nation of 96 million people 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.
Even by the standards of the Philippines, however, Haiyan was an especially large catastrophe. Its winds were among the strongest ever recorded, and it appears to have killed more people than the previous deadliest Philippine storm, Thelma, in which about 5,100 people died in the central Philippines in 1991.
The country’s deadliest disaster on record was the 1976 magnitude-7.9 earthquake that triggered a tsunami in the Moro Gulf in the southern Philippines, killing 5,791 people.