Authorities expect a "very high number of fatalities" after one of the strongest typhoons on record devastated the central Philippines, cutting communications and severely damaging an airport in one of the hardest-hit regions.
A senior regional police official and a city administrator in the typhoon-ravaged city of Tacloban in the central Philippines said early Sunday that the death toll there could reach 10,000 people, according to the Associated Press.
Regional police chief Elmer Soria said he was briefed by Leyte provincial Gov. Dominic Petilla on Saturday and told there were about 10,000 deaths on the island, mostly by drowning and from collapsed buildings.
Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim said that the death toll in the city alone "could go up to 10,000."
On Samar Island, which is facing Tacloban, Leo Dacaynos of the provincial disaster office said Sunday that 300 people were confirmed dead in Basey town and another 2,000 are missing.
He said that the storm surge caused sea waters to rise 20 feet when Typhoon Haiyan hit Friday, before crossing to Tacloban.
There are still other towns on Samar that have not been reached, Dacaynos said, and appealed for food and water. Power was knocked out and there was no cellphone signal, making communication possible only by radio.
Earlier, the Philippine Red Cross told Reuters that based on reports it estimated at least 1,200 were dead in Tacloban, which is located about 360 miles southeast of Manila, and 200 more in Samar Province.
Interior Secretary Max Roxas arrived in Tacloban Saturday and said it was too early to know exactly how many people had died following Typhoon Haiyan, which was heading toward Vietnam and expected to hit the country's coast Sunday afternoon.
"The rescue operation is ongoing. We expect a very high number of fatalities as well as injured," Roxas said. "All systems, all vestiges of modern living – communications, power water, all are down. Media is down, so there is no way to communicate with the people in a mass sort of way."
Rescue crews reported difficulty in delivering food and water to affected areas due to damaged roads and fallen trees.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that America "stands ready to help," and the president of the European Commission said a team had been sent to "contribute with urgent relief and assistance."
"The storm surge came in fairly high and there is significant structural damage and trees blown over," said U.S. Marine Col. Mike Wylie, who is a member of the U.S.-Philippines Military Assistance Group based in Manila.
At least 138 people were confirmed dead, with at least 118 deaths on the hardest-hit Leyte Island, where Tacloban is located.
President Benigno Aquino III said the casualties "will be substantially more," but gave no figure or estimate. He said the government's priority was to restore power and communications in isolated areas to allow for the delivery of relief and medical assistance to victims.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino was "speechless" when he told him of the devastation the typhoon had wrought in Tacloban.
"I told him all systems are down," Gazmin said. "There is no power, no water, nothing. People are desperate. They're looting."
The Philippine Red Cross and its partners were preparing for a major relief effort "because of the magnitude of the disaster," said the agency's chairman, Richard Gordon.
Capt. John Andrews, deputy director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said he received "reliable information" by radio from his staff that more than 100 bodies were lying in the streets of Tacloban on Leyte Island.
It was one of six islands slammed by the storm.
The airport in Tacloban, a city of 200,000 located about 360 miles southeast of Manila, looked like a muddy wasteland of debris Saturday, with crumpled tin roofs and upturned cars. The airport tower's glass windows were shattered, and air force helicopters were flying in and out at the start of relief operations.
"On the way to the airport we saw many bodies along the street," said Philippine-born Australian Mila Ward, 53, who was waiting at the Tacloban airport to catch a military flight back to Manila. "They were covered with just anything — tarpaulin, roofing sheets, cardboards." She said she passed "well over 100" dead bodies along the way.
Andrews said the seaside airport terminal was "ruined" by storm surges.
Television images showed residents of Tacloban wading through flooded streets littered half-submerged cars, Reuters reported. Communications networks and most roads were cut off after heavy flooding. Corpses hung from tree branches and were scattered along sidewalks and among flattened buildings, while looters raided grocery stores and gas stations in search of food, fuel and water.
"Almost all houses were destroyed, many are totally damaged. Only a few are left standing," Major Rey Balido, a spokesman for the national disaster agency, told Reuters.
"A lot of the dead were scattered," said Joseph de la Cruz, who hitched a ride on military plane after walking eight hours to reach the airport.
The Philippine television station GMA reported its news team saw 11 bodies, including that of a child, washed ashore Friday and 20 more bodies at a pier in Tacloban hours after the typhoon ripped through the coastal city.
At least 20 more bodies were taken to a church in nearby Palo town that was used as an evacuation center but had to be abandoned when its roofs were blown away, the TV network reported. TV images showed howling winds peeling off tin roof sheets during heavy rain.
Ferocious winds felled large branches and snapped coconut trees. A man was shown carrying the body of his 6-year-old daughter who drowned, and another image showed vehicles piled up in debris.
"I saw those big waves and immediately told my neighbors to flee. We thought it was a tsunami," Floremil Mazo, a villager in southeastern Davao Oriental province, told Reuters.
Nearly 800,000 people were forced to flee their homes and damage was believed to be extensive. About 4 million people were affected by the typhoon, the national disaster agency said.
Weather officials said Haiyan had sustained winds of 147 mph with gusts of 170 mph when it made landfall. By those measurements, Haiyan would be comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane in the U.S., nearly in the top category, a 5.
The Philippines is annually buffeted by tropical storms and typhoons, which are called hurricanes and cyclones elsewhere on the planet. The nation is positioned alongside the warm South Pacific where typhoons are spawned. Many rake the islands with fierce winds and powerful waves each year, and the archipelago's exposed eastern seaboard often bears the brunt.
Even by the standards of the Philippines, however, Haiyan is a catastrophe of epic proportions and has shocked the impoverished and densely populated nation of 96 million people. Its winds were among the strongest ever recorded, and it appears to have killed many more people than the previous deadliest Philippine storm, Thelma, which killed around 5,100 people in the central Philippines in 1991.The 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.
The typhoon's sustained winds weakened Saturday to 101 mph with stronger gusts as it blew farther away from the Philippines toward Vietnam.
UNICEF estimated that about 1.7 million children are living in areas impacted by the typhoon, according to the agency's representative in the Philippines Tomoo Hozumi. UNICEF's supply division in Copenhagen was loading 60 metric tons of relief supplies for an emergency airlift expected to arrive in the Philippines on Tuesday.
"The devastation is ... I don't have the words for it," Interior Secretary Roxas said. "It's really horrific. It's a great human tragedy."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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