TACLOBAN, Philippines – Shattered buildings line every road of this once-thriving city of 220,000, and many of the streets are still so clogged with debris from nearby buildings that they are barely discernible.
Decomposing bodies still lie along the roads, like the corpse in a pink, short-sleeved shirt and blue shorts facedown in a puddle 100 yards from the airport. Just down the road lies a church that was supposed to be an evacuation center but is littered with the bodies of those who drowned inside.
The civilian airport terminal here has shattered walls and gaping holes in the roof where steel beams protrude, twisted and torn by winds far more powerful than those of Hurricane Katrina when it made landfall near New Orleans in 2005.
The largest storm surge in modern history in the Philippines sent walls of water over half a mile inland along a crowded coastline when Typhoon Haiyan came ashore here Friday, erasing villages and towns and leaving thousands of people dead or missing.
The top civil defense official of the Philippines said in an interview after inspecting the damage that the storm surge had been the highest in the country’s modern history. The sea level rose 10 to 13 feet and filled streets and homes deep in the city, propelled by sustained winds of at least 140 mph and gusts that were far stronger.
“It was a tsunami-like storm surge, it is the first time,” said Eduardo del Rosario, the executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, in an interview after inspecting the damage here.
Tacloban has been hit by typhoons for decades, but never before had the sea risen high enough to pour over the swath of low salt marshes and inundate the city’s shady streets, he said.
As a violet sunset melted Monday into the nearly total darkness of a city without electricity, lighted only by a waxing half moon, dispirited residents walked home after another day of waiting at the airport in hope of fresh water, food or a flight out. Looters sacked groceries and pharmacies across the city over the weekend, leaving bare shelves for a population now quickly growing hungry and thirsty.
Miriam Refugio, 60, waited in the crowd of Filipinos at the airport seeking a scarce place on a flight to Manila.
“Our home was destroyed, there is no food in this town, so we have to flee,” she said, standing with her teenage granddaughter who held their only drinking water, a nearly empty plastic bottle that even when full would only hold perhaps 2 cups.
They were trying to decide whether to drink water from a nearby pump, even though the granddaughter, tugging at her stomach for emphasis, said that they were certain to become sick if they did.
Del Rosario said the government was still sending out helicopters Monday to look for communities that had not been heard from since the typhoon. The government had confirmed 1,563 deaths through Sunday evening in the hardest-hit region of the east-central Philippines, and the death toll will “most likely” rise, he said. Authorities fear the nationwide toll could surpass 10,000.
One of the biggest questions here involves the many people who seem to have disappeared, possibly sucked out to sea when the ocean returned to its usual level.
Rosemary Balais, 39, said that a very large proportion, possibly more than half, of the 5,000 people in her hometown Tanauan, near Tacloban, seemed to be missing.
“My sister and their children were there, and we have not heard from them since last Thursday,” she said, adding that they had lived only around 300 yards inland from the coast.
“There was a neighbor who had won a lottery and had a big house, and even that house was flattened,” she said.
Compounding the damage was the extraordinary force of the wind. Palm trees are naturally resilient, flexing and bending in high winds. But entire groves were flattened and their trunks left in tangles on the ground as though giant boxes of toothpicks had been tipped over.
In a country cursed with a succession of natural disasters, from earthquakes to violent storms to volcanic eruptions, the typhoon has emerged as especially deadly and destructive.
“It’s going to be classified as one of the worst, if not the worst, in decades,” among disasters that have struck the Philippines, said Ricky Carandang, a presidential spokesman.
The local government has declared a state of emergency and a curfew in Tacloban, and the national government is considering the declaration of an emergency in the city as well to speed the release of government money, Carandang said. The government is trying to fly in military and civilian police to restore law and order, but progress has been slow. Hundreds of soldiers and dozens of relief workers milled through the morning at Cebu airport, waiting for a plane to carry them to Tacloban.
Meanwhile, a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, was steaming toward the typhoon-ravaged eastern Philippines early today to join relief efforts.