For the frantic crowds milling at the airport in the typhoon-ravaged Philippines city of Tacloban, the arrival of two air force C130s was a welcome sight. But the cargo planes unloaded more soldiers than relief supplies – and most of the people hoping to board for the return flight to Manila had their hopes of escape from the disaster zone dashed.
“Get back! Get back into the building,” members of a Special Forces unit shouted through megaphones at families who had walked for hours to reach the shattered terminal. Many wept and begged to be allowed on board.
Although aid is beginning to trickle through to survivors of typhoon Haiyan, at least two-thirds of the estimated 660,000 displaced people are still without food, water and medicines. Aid agencies are still waiting to get staff into Tacloban, the regional capital of Leyte island, which bore the brunt of one of the most powerful storms ever recorded.
President Benigno Aquino said the death toll from the typhoon could be closer to 2,000 or 2,500 instead of the 10,000 that had been reported earlier.
A 15-person Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team of doctors and logistics experts with medical supplies has been waiting since Saturday in Cebu City, the nearest major airport, to get on one of the military planes to Tacloban. Doctors at a clinic set up at the ruined airport in Tacloban are desperate for supplies.
“It’s overwhelming,” air force Captain Antonio Tamayo told Associated Press. “We need more medicine. We cannot give anti-tetanus vaccine shots because we have none.” With many survivors still without clean water, food, shelter and medicines, there are increasing fears of disease outbreaks.
As a massive international aid effort swings ponderously into action – a US aircraft carrier with 5,000 soldiers and more than 80 aircraft is expected to arrive by Friday – questions were being asked about the Philippines government’s preparedness for a natural disaster forecast days before it struck.
Some observers say the impact of such a monstrous storm, with winds of more than 200mph and tsunami-like walls of water, was bound to be severe. Evacuation centres that were supposed to be typhoon-proof were destroyed.
Yet even in Tacloban, the focus of attention since the typhoon struck central Philippines on Friday, the official response has been chaotic. The city no longer has a functioning government, with officials either dead, missing or bereaved. City and hospital workers have reportedly focused on helping their own families and securing food. Only 20 of Tacloban’s 293 police officers are on duty.
“Basically, the only branch of government that is working here is the military,” a Philippines Army captain, Ruben Guinolbay, told Reuters.
Elsewhere, the situation may be even worse. “There are hundreds of other towns and villages stretched over thousands of kilometres that were in the path of the typhoon and with which all communication has been cut,” said Natasha Reyes, MSF’s emergency co-ordinator in the Philippines.
Those places include Guiuan, a fishing village on neighbouring Samar Island which suffered widespread destruction but is only just starting to receive relief supplies. “There are armed thieves going about,” one Guiuan resident told Agence France-Presse. “If they know that you have food stored away, they will force their way into your house and rob you.”
Other residents told of armed men stealing rice. “We’re helpless here. We are so few, and they are so many,” said one Guiuan policeman.
While the widespread looting seen in Tacloban has been curbed by military patrols and a curfew, the threat of violence remains. According to one charity, a man with a machete tried to rob aid workers receiving a delivery of medicines.
Fresh downpours of torrential rain have increased the misery of Tacloban residents, sleeping in the ruins of their homes or in the open. Few tents have arrived. “There is no help coming in,” said Mylene Balute, waiting at the airport. “They know our needs are urgent. Where is the shelter? We don’t know who is in charge.”
Marivel Saraza said she was trying to feed herself, her husband and six children on two kilos of rice and one can of sardines – the only aid she had received from the government. Her husband had travelled inland, searching for fruit, but found the trees destroyed. Rice fields were inundated with saltwater.
Aid convoys, raided by desperate survivors in recent days, are facing another threat. Agence France-Presse reported that one convoy, en route to Tacloban, was attacked by 15 communist rebels, fighting one of the country’s long-running insurgencies. Two rebels were shot dead by troops.
The UN’s humanitarian chief, the former British cabinet minister Baroness Amos, has released $25m (£15.7m) from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Team, and travelled to the Philippines.
Typhoon survivors’ stories
Virginia Basinang 54, a retired teacher, found herself in waist-deep water on the second floor of her home in Tacloban when the typhoon hit. People screamed as they bobbed in the wave that surged through the streets, grabbing at floating debris to try and help them stay above the waterline. “Some of them were able to hold on, some were lucky and lived, but most did not,” she told the New York Times. She said 14 bodies were left on the street when the seawater receded.
Lieutenant Colonel Fermin Carangan of the Philippine Air Force said he and 41 officers had been sheltering in their airport office when “suddenly the sea water and the waves destroyed the walls and I saw my men being swept by waters one by one”. He told the Associated Press he managed to cling to a coconut tree, with a seven-year-old boy. “In the next five hours we were in the sea buffeted by wind and strong rain. I kept on talking to the boy and giving him a pep talk because [he] was telling me he was tired and he wanted to sleep.” Finally, Carangan managed to swim to a nearby beach, which he said was strewn with bodies. “I think the boy saved my life because I found strength so that he can survive,” he said.
Joselito Caimoy 42, a truck driver, managed to get his wife, and two children on a flight out of Tacloban. He stayed behind to guard what is left of his home. “There is no water, no food,” he said. “People are just scavenging in the streets. 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.”
Amid the devastation, there was a moment of celebration on Monday when 21-year-old Emily Ortega gave birth to a daughter – Bea Joy Sagales – inside a makeshift hospital at Tacloban airport’s control tower. Ms Ortega managed to survive by clinging to a post during the floods, before she eventually found safety at the airport and gave birth. Her husband in Manila was unaware of what had happened. The baby’s aunt told ABC News that the child was named after Ms Ortega’s mother, who went missing in the typhoon on Friday.
Pregnant Jenny Dela Cruz lost 11 members of her family, including her two-year-old daughter. “Right now, all we can do is survive the day,” she told the BBC. “But I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, or the day after that, or if we can continue surviving.”
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