TACLOBAN, Philippines — The day after Typhoon Haiyan struck the eastern Philippine coast, a team of 15 doctors and logistics experts was ready to fly here to the worst-hit city to help. On Tuesday, five days into what could be the country’s deadliest disaster, they were still waiting to leave.
Aid is coming to Tacloban: medical supplies, pallets of water and food piled on trucks, planes and ferries, sent by the Philippine government and countries around the world. But the scale of the disaster and challenges of delivering the assistance means few in this city, strewn with debris and corpses, have received any help.
A team from Médecins Sans Frontières, complete with medical supplies, arrived in Cebu island on Saturday looking for a flight to Tacloban, but hadn’t left by Tuesday. A spokesman for the group said it was “difficult to tell” when it would be able to leave.
“We are in contact with the authorities, but the (Tacloban) airport is only for the Philippines military use,” Lee Pik Kwan said in a telephone interview.
At the medics’ intended destination, thousands of typhoon victims were trying to get out. They camped at the airport and ran onto the tarmac when planes came in, surging past a broken iron fence and a few soldiers and police trying to control them. Most didn’t make it aboard.
“We need help. Nothing is happening,” said Aristone Balute, an 81-year-old who didn’t get on a flight out of the city. “We haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon.” Her clothes were soaked from the rain, and tears streamed down her face.
An Associated Press reporter drove through the town for around 7 kilometers (4 miles) on Wednesday and saw more than 40 bodies. He saw no evidence of any organized delivery of food, water or medical supplies, though piles of aid have begun to arrive at the airport. Some people were lining up to get water from a hose, presumably from the city supply.
“There is a huge amount that we need to do. We have not been able to get into the remote communities,” U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in Manila. “Even in Tacloban, because of the debris and the difficulties with logistics and so on, we have not been able to get in the level of supply that we would want to. We are going to do as much as we can to bring in more.”
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said relief goods were getting into the city, and the supply should increase in coming days now that the airport and a bridge to the island were open.
“We are not going to leave one person behind — one living person behind,” he said. “We will help, no matter how difficult, no matter how inaccessible.”
Doctors in Tacloban said they were desperate for medicine. 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 for cuts, bruises, lacerations and 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.”
The longer survivors go without access to clean water, food, shelter and medical help, the greater chance of disease breaking out and people dying as a result of wounds sustained in the storm.
The official death toll from the disaster rose to 1,774 on Tuesday, though authorities have said they expect that to rise markedly. They fear estimates of 10,000 dead are accurate and might be low. More than 9 million people have been affected across a large swath of the country, many of them made homeless.
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.
The loss of life appears to be concentrated in Tacloban and surrounding areas, including a portion of Samar island that is separated from Leyte island by a strait. It is possible that other devastated areas are so isolated they have not yet been reached.
In Cebu, to the southwest, the Philippine air force has been sending three C-130s back and forth to Tacloban from dawn to dusk, and had delivered 400,000 pounds of relief supplies by Tuesday, Lt. Col. Marciano Jesus Guevara said. A lack of electricity in Tacloban means planes can’t land there at night.
Guevara said the C-130s have transported nearly 3,000 civilians out of the disaster zone, and that the biggest problem in Tacloban is a lack of clean drinking water.
“Water is life,” he said. “If you have water with no food, you’ll survive.”
There is also growing concern about recovering corpses that are still rotting throughout the disaster zone. “It really breaks your heart when you see them,” said Maj. Gen. Romeo Poquiz, commander of the 2nd Air Division.
“We’re limited with manpower, the expertise, as well as the trucks that have to transport them to different areas for identification,” Poquiz said. “Do we do a mass burial, because we can’t identify them anymore? If we do a mass burial, where do you place them?”
Most Tacloban residents spent the 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.
“There is no help coming in. They know this is a tragedy. They know our needs are urgent. Where is the shelter?” said Aristone Balute’s granddaughter, Mylene, who was also at the airport. “We are confused. We don’t know who is in charge.”
Damaged roads and other infrastructure are complicating the relief efforts. Government officials and police and army officers are in many cases among the victims themselves, hampering coordination. The typhoon destroyed military buildings that housed 1,000 soldiers in Leyte province.
There were other distractions, including a jailbreak in Tacloban. Army Brig. Gen. Virgilio Espineli, the deputy regional military commander, said Tuesday he wasn’t sure how many of the 600 inmates fled.
At Matnog, the port for ferries leaving to Samar island, dozens of trucks piled high with aid were waiting to cross. In the capital, Manila, soldiers tossed pallets of water, medical supplies and foods into C-130 planes bound for the disaster area.
The United Nations said it had released $25 million in emergency funds to pay for emergency shelter materials and household items, and for assistance with the provision of emergency health services, safe water supplies and sanitation facilities. It’s launching an appeal for more aid.
The aircraft carrier USS George Washington is headed toward the region with massive amounts of water and food, but the Pentagon said it won’t arrive until Thursday. The U.S. also said it is providing $20 million in immediate aid.
Aid totaling tens of millions of dollars has been pledged by many other countries, including Japan, Australia and Britain, which is sending a Royal Navy vessel with aid.
For now, relief has come to a lucky few, including Joselito Caimoy, a 42-year-old truck driver. He was able to get his wife, son and 3-year-old daughter on a flight out of Tacloban. They embraced in a tearful goodbye, but Caimoy stayed behind to guard what’s left of his home and property.
“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, “he said. “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.
The storm also killed eight people in southern China and inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to farming and fishing industries, Chinese state media reported Tuesday.
The Philippines, an archipelago nation of more than 7,000 islands, is annually buffeted by tropical storms and typhoons, but Haiyan was an especially large catastrophe. Its winds were among the strongest ever recorded, and it may 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.
Tacloban is near Red Beach on Leyte Island, where U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur waded ashore in 1944 during World War II and fulfilled his famous pledge: “I shall return.” The scene is re-created in a monument on the shore. After the typhoon, one of the seven statues — but not the one of MacArthur himself — was toppled over.