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Tacloban City in the Philippines Begins to Bury Its Dead

Volunteers lowered bodies into a mass grave on Thursday in Tacloban.

Volunteers lowered bodies into a mass grave on Thursday in Tacloban.

TACLOBAN, the Philippines — Pausing occasionally to dodge driving rains by hiding under loose scraps of plywood, a group of firefighters lowered unidentified bodies into a mass grave here Thursday, six days after the city was largely destroyed in Typhoon Haiyan.

For days, the bodies had sat in public. First they were uncovered on roadsides; then they were placed in body bags. After that, they were collected, and nearly 200 were stored at the biggest site, a government office. In the nearby City Hall, the center of local government relief efforts, the stench from the bodies could be powerful when the wind blew off the harbor.

Two young boys look at the devastation in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan

Two young boys look at the devastation in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan

“What we are doing is a little bit late,” said Alfred S. Romualdez, the mayor of Tacloban. He blamed the national government for widespread delays of burials and the distribution of food, water and basic relief supplies.

“I appreciate the boats coming in, the planes coming in,” he said. “But what we need are foot soldiers, times 10 of what you see now.”

The official death toll for Tacloban City rose to 2,000 on Thursday, but that covers only bodies that have been collected or visually confirmed by authorized officials. The visually confirmed bodies are those readily visible from roadsides, as relief crews have yet to start digging through towering piles of debris, much of it studded with nails.

There are also 3,000 injured, by the official tally, and 194 people for whom the paperwork has been completed for them to be declared missing.

In a familiar problem here, in a relief effort dogged by glitches, Mr. Romualdez said that the backhoe digging the mass grave had broken down before the hole was big enough for the initial batch of 244 bodies.

“Tomorrow morning, it’s going to get going,” he said.

Food distribution has improved, Mr. Romualdez said. Relief workers have now distributed packages of rations in 101 of the city’s 138 neighborhoods, he said, and will reach the rest on Friday, he said. Each family is supposed to receive three kilograms, or six and a half pounds, of rice and some canned goods.

Residents cover their nose from the smell of dead bodies in Tacloban city.

Residents cover their nose from the smell of dead bodies in Tacloban city.

But walk through Tacloban, and people plead for food, like the family near Santo Niño Church, packed into a crew cab pickup truck for shelter, who cried “We need food” to passers-by.

Mr. Romualdez acknowledged that food distribution had been a problem. Large numbers of people have been wandering across the city seeking food or missing family members. Those who are not at home when a relief truck arrives in their neighborhood are unlikely to get food, the mayor said.

A Philippine Red Cross convoy of two ambulances, two water tanker trucks, a busload of police officers and six large trucks carrying medical supplies drove into Tacloban on Thursday morning, having driven from Manila, a 22-hour trip. Jennifer Chico, the Leyte Island administrator for the Philippine Red Cross, said that the convoy had left a needed fuel tanker along the way, at least partly because of worries about the security of bringing such high-value cargo into a still-turbulent area. A Red Cross road-clearing equipment convoy also reached Tacloban on Thursday.

In a sign of the continuing fuel shortages, dozens of people waiting hours to receive gasoline that was being pulled out of a gas stations tanks by people using buckets attached to poles. “It’s free. You just have to get up early,” said Michael Patan-Ao, who had waited eight hours for fuel for his motorcycle. Two police officers watched over the scene.

Security concerns have plagued much of the disaster response effort. An effort to bury the bodies on Wednesday was halted over fears of possible violence.

“During transportation we noticed civilians running and crying and telling us there was a shooting,” said Reynaldo Romero, who heads a National Bureau of Investigation team that is overseeing the mass burial. “For the safety of the men, we had to turn back. Later it was confirmed there was no actual shooting.”

The death toll from a super typhoon that decimated entire towns in the Philippines could soar well over 10,000

The death toll from a super typhoon that decimated entire towns in the Philippines could soar well over 10,000

Mr. Romualdez later gave a different version, saying that a police investigation had found that law enforcement officials had fired warning shots to break up a fight between two people.

Flash thunderstorms were the biggest obstacle to the burial of corpses on Thursday. Rain soaked the eight firefighters who carried the bodies out of trucks and handed them to graveyard workers, most of them teenagers, who carried the bodies down into a freshly dug pit.

“It’s very, very difficult,” said Arnulfo Homeres, a firefighter who was helping carry the bodies. “But this is our profession, so we have to do it.” He wore two layers of masks that he occasionally daubed with perfume.

At one end, a backhoe worked to expand the pit, which was about two meters deep, three meters across and 60 meters wide. The backhoe broke down Thursday afternoon.

Mr. Romualdez said that he expected the pit to contain 400 bodies by Friday and that it could eventually hold 1,000. A separate mass grave will be dug at the site for the bodies of victims who have been identified.

At the foot of the pit and on the road beside the graveyard were more than a dozen bodies that been had brought by local residents to be buried in the mass grave. Most were wrapped in corrugated metal and cloth.

Destroyed houses lie in Tacloban city, Leyte province central Philippines

Destroyed houses lie in Tacloban city, Leyte province central Philippines

In a few months, the unidentified bodies will be exhumed and investigators will try to identify them using data like dental records, though many such records may have been destroyed in the storm. Mr. Romualdez said he expected that perhaps only 20 percent of the unknown dead would ever be identified.

The mass burial was at the Basper Public Cemetery, about eight kilometers, or five miles, outside central Tacloban. The storm surge did not reach the site, but it came close. A short distance from the graveyard, several taxis had been strewn across the road by the force of the wall of water that hit the city.

The steep hills above the graveyard, which residents said were green before the storm, are now brown and stripped of much of their plant life. A nearby valley is filled with badly damaged shack houses and palm trees with their tops broken.

The pit will remain open until all the bodies recovered from the public roads have been placed inside. Then they will be covered and a Mass will be offered, most likely on Friday, said Mr. Romualdez.

A second service will eventually be held for the dead found in houses and buildings, work that has yet to begin.

 

 

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