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Philippines fears massive death toll as Typhoon Haiyan wreaks havoc


MANILA, Philippines — The super typhoon that tore through the Philippines and left a feared five-figure death toll touched down in central Vietnam early Monday, already ranking as one of Asia’s most destructive natural disasters in recent decades.

As rescue workers struggled to reach some areas along a heavily damaged chain of Philippine islands, survivors described a toll that this impoverished country will be contending with for years.

Entire regions are without food and water, and bodies are strewn on the streets, after a typhoon that had much the look of a tsunami, with waves as high as two-story buildings. Photos and videos showed towns ground to a pulp. Amid reports of widespread looting, President Benigno Aquino III said he was considering declaring a state of emergency or martial law in the hard-hit city of Tacloban.

Aquino, who traveled by helicopter to Tacloban on Sunday, said the government had deployed several hundred soldiers to “show the strength of the state and deter further looting,” according to his official website.

As of Sunday evening, the government had confirmed only 229 deaths, but Aquino said the official numbers will rise “substantially.”

With unconfirmed wire service reports of about 10,000 dead in Tacloban alone, Typhoon Haiyan threatened to become the deadliest disaster in Philippine history, surpassing Tropical Storm Thelma, which killed 5,000 people in 1991. With sustained wind speeds of 150 to 170 mph, Haiyan is among the strongest storms on record.

“Tacloban is totally destroyed,” schoolteacher Andrew Pomeda told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “Some people are losing their minds from hunger or from losing their families. People are becoming violent. They are looting business establishments, the malls, just to find food. I’m afraid that in one week, people will be killing from hunger.”

The latest Philippine government estimates suggest that 9.5 million people — about 10 percent of the country — have been affected, with more than 600,000 displaced from their homes. Many roads remain impassable, according to the U.N. office responsible for humanitarian affairs, and some of the injured have no access to medical care. Even in Tacloban, one of the first areas accessed by aid workers, it takes six hours to make the 14-mile round trip between the airport and the city because of the damage, officials said.

“It is vital that we reach those who are stranded in isolated areas as they are at risk of further threats such as malnutrition, exposure to bad weather and unsafe drinking water,” said Luiza Carvalho, a U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Philippines.

Tacloban, with a population of 220,000, is the capital of Leyte province, a mountainous island roughly the size of Delaware. On Samar, a slightly larger island nearby, Leo Dacaynos of the provincial disaster office told the Associated Press that 300 people were dead, 2,000 were missing and parts of the island had not been contacted. Both Samar and Leyte are on the eastern side of the Philippine archipelago; reports about islands on the western side remain sparse.

Although the storm occurred Friday, a picture of the damage is emerging only now as communication lines slowly reopen.

On Monday morning, local media in Manila reported heavily on security worries in the devastated areas. Video footage showed crowds ramming into the Gaisano mall in Tacloban and hauling out supplies, including clothing, suitcases and an ice cream freezer.

Reports emphasized that communication infrastructure is heavily damaged, slowing the emergency response. Even in Tacloban, mobile service is not possible.

“There is a need for food and water,” said Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general for the Philippine Red Cross. “But we still have yet to assess the full damage” because some areas are cut off.

The Philippines ranks among the world’s most disaster-prone countries and is hit annually by about 20 typhoons that build in the Pacific’s deep, warm ocean water. The country is especially susceptible to damage because of ramshackle infrastructure. Many residents in the poorer areas live in shacks with corrugated metal roofs.

A typhoon in December killed more than 1,900 people. And a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Bohol province last month, killing more than 200. The World Bank said last year that the Philippines loses about 0.8 percent of its gross domestic product to disasters.

Philippines typhoon 2

People walk among debris and destroyed houses in Palo, on the eastern island of Leyte, on Nov. 10. Noel Celis/AFP

In the aftermath of Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda, photos and video footage showed towns pulverized into what looked like piles of matchsticks, with a few wind-whipped palm trees the last remnants of a skyline.

In Tacloban, the airport was reduced to twisted beams. Ships and tankers were flung onto shore. Philippine television reported that ATMs were being looted, as well as malls and grocery stores.

With a massive relief operation underway, the Philippine Red Cross told the AP that its efforts were being hampered by looters, including some who attacked trucks of food and other relief supplies that the agency was shipping Sunday from the southern port city of Davao to Tacloban.

The government said Saturday that it would speed up aid and food distribution to victims. “We have to move fast considering the extent of the devastation. People in the worst-hit areas need food, water and medicines,” Corazon Juliano-Soliman, secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, said in a statement posted on the website of the president’s office.

The U.N. World Food Program said it is trying to airlift supplies and set up operating hubs in the hardest-hit areas.

“The main challenges right now are related to logistics. Roads are blocked; airports are destroyed,” said Praveen Agrawal, the WFP representative in the Philippines.

In a statement Sunday, U.S. President Barack Obama said that the United States is prepared to help the Philippines recover and that he and first lady Michelle Obama are deeply saddened by the deaths and destruction caused by the disaster.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the military’s Pacific Command to send ships and aircraft to help with search-and-rescue operations and carry emergency supplies to those in need.

Obama said the United States is providing significant humanitarian assistance, “and we stand ready to further assist the government’s relief and recovery efforts.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the millions of people affected by this devastating storm,” he said.

Haiyan made landfall in Vietnam early Monday, but it has weakened significantly.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese have been evacuated and are cramming into storm shelters. The storm is expected to cause major flooding in several heavily populated areas, including Hanoi.

Harlan reported from Seoul, South Korea.

© 2013, The Washington Post

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