TACLOBAN – One of the strongest typhoons on record likely killed hundreds of people as tsunami-like waves and savage winds flattened entire communities in the Philippines, authorities said Saturday.
Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) tore into the eastern islands of Leyte and Samar on Friday with sustained winds of around 315 kilometres (195 miles) an hour, then tormented millions of people as it ripped across the Southeast Asian archipelago.
After reaching the devastated fishing town of Palo in Leyte by helicopter, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla said he believed “hundreds” of people had died just in that area.
Petilla, a Palo native, was dispatched by President Benigno Aquino to survey the island and said there were similar scenes of carnage in three other cities or towns in Leyte.
“They all looked the same. The roofs were off all the buildings they were littered with fallen trees,” he said.
But authorities said they had no idea just how many people had died, with Yolanda causing major damage across a 600-kilometre stretch of islands through the central Philippines.
Some of the worst-hit areas on Leyte and Samar, isolated by destroyed power and communication lines as well as damaged roads, had yet to be contacted.
More than four million people were affected across 36 provinces, the government said.
Aside from the ferocious winds, Yolanda generated storm surges that saw waves three metres (10 feet) high swamp coastal towns and power inland.
“This is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumble weed and the streets are strewn with debris,” said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the head of a United Nations disaster assessment coordination team.
“The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami,” he said, referring to the 2004 disaster that claimed about 220,000 lives.
Stampa made his comments after arriving in Tacloban, the destroyed capital of Leyte with a population of about 220,000 people that is about 10 kilometres from Palo.
More than 100 bodies were littered in and around Tacloban’s airport, according to the facility’s manager.
AFP journalists who arrived in Tacloban on a military aircraft encountered dazed survivors wandering amid the carnage who were asking for water, while others sorted through what was left of their destroyed homes.
One resident, Dominador Gullena, cried as he recounted to AFP his escape but the loss of his neighbours.
“My family evacuated the house. I thought our neighbours also did the same, but they didn’t,” Gullena said.
Eight bodies had been laid to rest inside Tacloban airport’s chapel, which had also been badly damaged, according to an AFP photographer.
One woman knelt on the flood-soaked floor of the church while holding the hand of a dead boy, who had been placed on a wooden pew.
Race to reach devastated communities
The military, government officials and relief workers raced to survey and provide aid to dozens of other communities across the path of destruction.
One area of concern yet to be reached was Guiuan, a fishing town of about 40,000 people on Samar that was the first to be hit after Haiyan swept in from the Pacific Ocean.
Philippines Red Cross chief Gwendolyn Pang also said relief workers were trying to get to Capiz province, about 200 kilometres west of Tacloban, on Panay island.
She said most of Capiz’s infrastructure had been destroyed and many houses “flattened to the ground”.
Fifteen thousand soldiers were in the disaster zones and helping in the rescue effort, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.
Zagala said helicopters were flying rescuers into priority areas, while infantry units deployed across the affected areas were also proceeding on foot or in military trucks.
Haiyan’s wind strength, which remained close to 300 kilometres an hour throughout Friday, made it the strongest typhoon in the world this year and one of the most intense ever recorded.
It exited into the South China Sea on Saturday and tracked towards Vietnam, where more than 100,000 people had begun evacuating from vulnerable areas, Vietnamese state media reported.
Philippine authorities had expressed confidence on Friday that only a few people had been killed, citing two days of intense preparation efforts led by President Aquino.
Nearly 800,000 people in danger zones had been moved to evacuation centres, while thousands of boats across the archipelago were ordered to remain secured at ports. Hundreds of flights were also cancelled.
“The president is asking why there were still fatalities,” Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras told reporters.
An average of 20 major storms or typhoons, many of them deadly, batter the Philippines each year as they emerge from the Pacific Ocean.
The Philippines suffered the world’s strongest storm of 2012, when Typhoon Bopha left about 2,000 people dead or missing on the southern island of Mindanao.
Typhoon Haiyan Hammeres the Phillipines Death Toll Climbs