Typhoon-struck city begins mass burial

TACLOBAN, Philippines — A Philippines city devastated by the typhoon buried some of its dead in a mass grave in a hillside cemetery on Thursday, a small sign of progress in a relief effort that has yet to reach most of the tens of thousands affected by the disaster.

The ceremony took place in a graveyard just outside the city of Tacloban.

No prayers were said as workers buried 30 bodies enclosed in leaking black cadaver bags into the ground.

“I hope this is the last time I see something like this,” said Mayor Alfred Romualdez. “When I look at this it just reminds me of what has happened from the day the storm hit until today.”

Officials said efforts had been made to identify the bodies so families have a chance of finding out what happened to their loved ones in the days and weeks to come, but it was not immediately clear whether this included DNA testing.

Authorities say 2,357 people have been confirmed dead in the disaster, but that figure is expected to rise, perhaps significantly, when information is collected from other areas of the disaster zone. Most casualties appear to be concentrated on coastal regions of two main islands — Samar and Leyte, where Tacloban is located.

Earlier in the city, soldiers sat atop trucks distributing rice and water, and chainsaw-wielding teams cut debris from blocked roads, indications that relief operations were picking up steam, even as thousands swarmed the airport, desperate to leave.

The first nighttime flights — of C-130 transport planes — arrived since the typhoon struck, suggesting air control systems are now in place for a 24-7 operation — a prerequisite for the massive relief operation needed.

Food, water and medical supplies from the U.S., Malaysia and Singapore sat on pallets along the tarmac.

The U.N.’s World Food Program distributed rice and other items to nearly 50,000 people in the Tacloban area Wednesday. Nearly 10 tons of high-energy biscuits were also delivered to the city on Wednesday, with another 25 tons on the way.

Hundreds of injured people, pregnant women, children and the elderly have poured into a makeshift medical center at the ruined airport. The run-down, single-story building with filthy floors has little medicine, virtually no facilities and very few doctors.

Doctors who have been dealing with cuts, fractures and pregnancy’ complications said Wednesday they soon expect to be treating more serious problems such as pneumonia, dehydration, diarrhea and infections.

The medical woes add to the daunting tasks for authorities, including dealing with looters and clearing the bottlenecks holding up thousands of tons of aid material from coming in.

The disaster displaced 600,000 people. Many are living without shelter, hungry and thirsty, with their livelihoods destroyed. Much of the aid — and the staff needed to distribute it — remains stuck in Manila and the nearby airport of Cebu, a 45-minute flight away.

“The priority has got to be, let’s get the food in, let’s get the water in. We got a lot more come in today, But even that won’t be enough, We really need to scale up operations in an ongoing basis,” U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told reporters after touring Talcoban. Her office has released $25 million in emergency relief funds, accounting for a chunk of the millions of dollars pledged by countries around the world.

Some among the desperate residents have resorted to raiding for food. Mobs overran a rice warehouse on Leyte, collapsing a wall that killed eight people. Thousands of sacks of the grain were carted off. But police say the situation is improving on the ground, and there was little sign Thursday of a deteriorating security situation there.

Philippine Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla said it may take six weeks before the first typhoon-hit towns get their electric power back. He said that in Tacloban, order needed to be restored “because if there’s no peace and order, it’s hard to reinstall the power posts.”

He said army troops had fired shots Wednesday to drive away a group of armed men who approached a power transmission sub-station in Leyte province. The unidentified men fired back then fled. Nobody was hurt.

Gegham Petrosyan, from International Committee of the Red Cross, said destruction along the south cost of Samar island was “massive.”

“People are desperate for life-saving aid,” Petrosyan said. “However, logistical and security constraints continue to hamper the distribution of desperately needed relief.”

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