TACLOBAN, Philippines (AP) — Bloated bodies lay uncollected and uncounted in the streets and desperate survivors pleaded for food, water and medicine as rescue workers took on a daunting task Monday in the typhoon-battered islands of the Philippines. Thousands were feared dead.
The hard-hit city of Tacloban resembled a garbage dump from the air, with only a few concrete buildings left standing in the wake of one of the most powerful storms to ever hit land, packing 147-mph winds and whipping up 20-foot walls of seawater that tossed ships inland and swept many out to sea.
"Help. SOS. We need food," read a message painted by a survivor in large letters on the ravaged city's port, where water lapped at the edge.
There was no one to carry away the dead, which lay rotting along the main road from the airport to Tacloban, the worst-hit city along the country's remote eastern seaboard.
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.
Authorities estimated the typhoon killed 10,000 or more people, but with the slow pace of recovery, the official death toll three days after the storm made landfall 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, the largest city in Leyte province. 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.
"Please tell my family I'm alive," said Erika Mae Karakot as she stood among a throng of people waiting for aid. "We need water and medicine because a lot of the people we are with are wounded. Some are suffering from diarrhea and dehydration due to shortage of food and water."
Philippine soldiers were distributing food and water, and assessment teams from the United Nations and other international agencies were seen Monday for the first time. The U.S. military dispatched food, water, generators and a contingent of Marines to the city, the first outside help in what will swell into a major international relief mission.
Authorities said they had evacuated some 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.
Emily Ortega, 21 and about to give birth, said she clung to a post to survive after the evacuation center she fled to was devastated by the 20-foot (6-meter) storm surge. She reached safety at the airport, where she gave birth to a baby girl, Bea Joy Sagales, whose arrival drew applause from the military medics who assisted in the delivery.
The wind, rain and coastal storm surges transformed neighborhoods into twisted piles of debris, blocking roads and trapping decomposing bodies underneath. Cars and trucks lay upended among flattened homes, and bridges and ports were washed away.
"In some cases the devastation has been total," said Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras.
At U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, Poland, the envoy from the Philippines broke down in tears as he described waiting in agony for news from relatives caught in the massive storm's path.
"In solidarity with my countrymen, who are struggling to find food back home ... I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate," said the envoy, Naderev "Yeb" Sano, who urged delegates to work toward "meaningful" change. His emotional appeal was met with a standing ovation.
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.
Brig. Gen. Kennedy said Philippine forces were handling security well and U.S. troops were "looking at how to open up roads and land planes and helicopters" in order to bring in shelter, water and other supplies.
Still, those caught in the storm were worried that aid would not arrive soon enough.
"We're afraid that it's going to get dangerous in town because relief goods are trickling in very slow," said Bobbie Womack, an American missionary from Athens, Tenn. "I know it's a massive, massive undertaking to try to feed a town of over 150,000 people. They need to bring in shiploads of food."
Womack's husband, Larry, said he chose to stay at their beachside home in Tacloban, only to find the storm surge engulfing it. He survived by climbing onto a beam in the roof.
"The roof was lifting up and the wind was coming through and there were waves going over my head," he said. "The sound was loud. It was just incredible."
Marvin Daga, a 19-year-old student, tried to ride out the storm in his home with his ailing father, Mario, but the storm surge carried the building away.
They clung to each other while the house floated for a while, but it eventually crumbled and they fell into churning waters. The teen grabbed a coconut tree with one hand and his father with the other, but he slipped out of his grasp.
"I hope that he survived," Marvin said as tears filled his eyes. "But I'm not expecting to find him anymore."
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.
Haiyan hit the eastern seaboard of the Philippines on Friday and quickly barreled across its central islands, with winds that gusted to 170 mph. It inflicted serious damage to at least six islands in the middle of the eastern seaboard.
The storm's sustained winds weakened to 74 mph as the typhoon made landfall in northern Vietnam early Monday after crossing the South China Sea, according to the Hong Kong meteorological observatory. Authorities there evacuated hundreds of thousands of people, but there were no reports of significant damage or injuries.
It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it entered southern China later Monday, and weather officials forecast torrential rain in the area until Tuesday. No major damage was reported in China, though Xinhua News Agency said heavy winds tore a cargo ship from its moorings in southern China and drove it out to sea, killing at least two crew members.
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.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Teresa Cerojano in Manila and Minh Tran in Hanoi, Vietnam, contributed to this report.