CEBU, Philippines – Three days after one of the most powerful storms ever to buffet the Philippines, the scale of the devastation and the desperation of the survivors were slowly coming into view.
The living told stories of the dead or dying – the people swept away in a torrent of seawater, the corpses strewn haphazardly among the wreckage. Photos from the hard-hit city of Tacloban showed vast stretches of land swept clean of homes, and reports emerged of people who were desperate for food and water raiding aid convoys and stripping the stores that were left standing.
As Monday dawned, it became increasingly clear that Typhoon Haiyan had ravaged cities, towns and fishing villages when it played a deadly form of hopscotch across the islands of the central Philippines on Friday. By some estimates, at least 10,000 people may have died in Tacloban alone, and with phone service out across stretches of the far-flung archipelago, it was difficult to know if the storm was as deadly in more remote areas.
Barreling across palm-fringed beaches and plowing into frail homes with a force that by some estimates approached that of a tornado, Haiyan delivered a crippling blow to this country’s midsection. The culprit increasingly appeared to be a storm surge that was driven by those winds, which were believed to be among the strongest ever recorded in the Philippines, lifting a wall of water onto the land as they struck. By some accounts, the winds raged ashore at 190 mph.
As aid crews struggled to reach ravaged areas, the storm appeared to lay bare some of the perennial woes of the Philippines. The country’s roads and airports, long starved of money by corrupt and incompetent governments, are some of the worst in Southeast Asia and often make traveling long distances a trial in the best of times. On Monday, clogged with debris from splintered buildings and shattered trees, the roads in the storm’s path were worse, slowing rescue teams.
The storm posed challenges for President Benigno S. Aquino III, who just two months ago struggled to wrest back a major city in the south from insurgents. Aquino has won plaudits at home and abroad for his fight against corruption during his three and a half years in office, leading to increased foreign investment and an impressive growth rate, but he must still contend with Muslim separatists in the south and provinces that have long been the fiefdoms of regional strongmen and have been resistant to government control.
Now add to that list a storm that is threatening to be one of the country’s worst natural disasters, at a time when emergency funds have been depleted by a series of other calamities, most notably an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2 that struck the middle of the country four weeks ago. This morning, after the reports of widespread raiding of stores and robberies and rising fears of a breakdown of law and order, the government said it was flying more police to the central Philippines.
Although deadly storms are not unusual in the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan appears to stand apart, both in the ferocity of its winds, which some described as sounding like a freight train, and in its type of destruction. The usual cause of death from typhoons in the Philippines is from mudslides and river flooding, as waterways swell with rainwater.
So when Haiyan sped across the islands on Friday, some officials and weather experts in the Philippines thought they had witnessed something of a miracle. The storm that lit up social media for days with dire warnings was thought to have mostly spared the islands because it did not linger long enough to dump a deluge of rainwater.
What they did not factor into their hopeful assessments was a storm surge that some reports said was 13 feet in Tacloban, and which left a trail of destruction that in some ways mirrored the aftermath of tsunamis. One photo of a large ship that was stranded on land resembled images from Japan in 2011, when an earthquake sent a wall of water crashing into its northeastern shore.
Aquino had urged residents to leave low-lying areas, but he did not order an evacuation. On Sunday, he toured some stricken areas and declared a “state of calamity,” a first step in the release of emergency money from the government.
As the president arrived in Tacloban to meet with victims of the storm and to coordinate rescue and cleanup efforts, his defense secretary, Voltaire Gazmin, described the chaos in the city of 220,000.
“There is no power, no water, nothing,” Gazmin said. “People are desperate.”
Lynette Lim, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, weathered the storm in a local government office in Tacloban before leaving the city on a military aircraft Sunday morning. She said that even schools, gymnasiums and other sites that the local government had designated as evacuation centers had failed to hold up against the powerful winds.
“The roofs had been ripped off, the windows had shattered, and sometimes the ceilings had caved in,” Lim said in a telephone interview from Manila.
Aid efforts in the Philippines were complicated by the magnitude of the devastation and problems with communications systems. In addition, the Philippine National Red Cross said its relief efforts were being hampered as people grabbed supplies from the trucks sent from the southern port city of Davao to Tacloban on Sunday, the Associated Press reported.
International aid agencies and foreign governments were also sending emergency teams. At the request of the Philippine government, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the deployment of ships and aircraft to bring emergency supplies and help in the search-and-rescue efforts, the Defense Department said. The U.S. Embassy in Manila made $100,000 immediately available for health and sanitation efforts, according to its Twitter feed.
President Obama issued a statement Sunday saying he expected “the incredible resiliency of the Philippine people,” to help the country, an American ally, through the trauma. He said the U.S. government also stands ready to assist the government’s relief and recovery efforts.