TACLOBAN, PHILIPPINES -- A city devastated by last week’s typhoon buried some of its dead in a mass grave in a hillside cemetery on Thursday, a somber reminder of the tragedy that has left the Philippines with the monumental task of providing for some 11.5 million affected people.
Aid was beginning to reach some of the 545,000 people displaced by Typhoon Haiyan that tore across several islands in eastern Philippines six days ago, killing thousands of people. Most of the casualties occurred in Leyte province, its capital Tacloban, and Samar island. Many bodies are still lying along the roads in the city and others are buried under debris.
Outside the Tacloban City Hall, dozens of bodies in bags were lined up Thursday, waiting to be trucked to the cemetery just outside the city for burial. The stench of death filled the air.
In the first such operation, 30 bodies in leaking black bags were lowered into graves without any prayers being said.
“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. 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.
While there is no shortage of aid material—both domestic and international—much of it is stuck in Manila and the nearby airport of Cebu because of the extensive damage that Tacloban airport suffered. Some of it, including food, water and medical supplies from the U.S., Malaysia and Singapore, had reached Tacloban and sat on pallets along the tarmac.
Some of those materials were starting to reach Tacloban from the American aircraft carrier U.S. Navy’s George Washington Strike Group (GWSG).
Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, commander of the Strike Group, said in a statement that the carrier USS George Washington and two U.S. cruisers, the USS Antietam and USS Cowpens, were expected to reach a position just off the eastern coast of Samar island Thursday, “in order to begin to assess the damage and provide logistical and emergency support to include medical and water supplies.”
Eight pallets containing 1,920 gallons of water and three more carrying food supplies had reached Tacloban airfield already, having been dispatched from the U.S.
Navy cargo ship UNSN Charles Drew. Several more pallets of water were heading from the ship to another airfield in the region on Thursday, Montgomery said.
Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief who toured Tacloban on Wednesday, said because of a lack of fuel in Tacloban, the few trucks on ground were unable to move the aid material from the airport to the city, however. The weather also remains a challenge, with frequent downpours. The good news is that the debris on the road from the airport to the city has been pushed to one side, she said.
In what will likely be a crucial element of the U.S. assistance, the George Washington Strike group was bringing with it a large fleet of helicopters, capable of delivering supplies to some of the harder to reach areas.
“One of the best capabilities the Strike Group brings is our 21 helicopters,” Montgomery said in the statement. “These helicopters represent a good deal of lift to move emergency supplies around.”
“There’s a bit of a logjam to be absolutely honest getting stuff in here,” said U.N. staffer Sebastian Rhodes Stampa against the roar of a C-130 transport plane landing behind him at the airstrip in Tacloban, one of the hardest-hit cities.
“It’s almost all in country - either in Manila or in Cebu, but it’s not here. We’re going to have a real challenge with logistics in terms of getting things out of here, into town, out of town, into the other areas,” he said. “The reason for that essentially is that there are no trucks, the roads are all closed.”
The situation grew so dire on Wednesday that Tacloban’s mayor, Alfred Romualdez, urged residents to flee the city because local authorities were having trouble providing food and water and maintaining order.
On Wednesday, gunfire broke out close to the city’s San Juanico bridge on Wednesday between security forces and armed men, but the circumstances were unclear, according to footage on local TV.
Since the storm, people have broken into homes, malls and garages, where they have stripped the shelves of food, water and other goods. Authorities have struggled to stop the looting. There have been unconfirmed reports of armed gangs of robbers operating in a systematic manner.
An 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew was in place across the region. Despite incidents, police said the situation was improving.
CBS News correspondent Seth Doane reported from Tacloban that, with no clean drinking water in sight not far from the airport, some people tapped into an underground pipe just so they could fill up containers.
“We don’t know if it’s safe,” one man told Doane. “We’ll need to boil it, but at least we have something.”
Amos said some 11.5 million people have been affected by the typhoon, which includes people who lost their loved ones, were injured, and suffered damage to their homes, business or livelihoods.
“The situation is dismal ... tens of thousands of people are living in the open ... exposed to rain and wind,” she told reporters in Manila on Thursday.
She said the immediate priority for humanitarian agencies over the next few days is to transport and distribute high energy biscuits and other food, tarpaulins, tents, clean drinking water and basic sanitation services.
“I think we are all extremely distressed that this is Day 6 and we have not managed to reach everyone,” she said.
Along with aid workers, Philippine soldiers on trucks were distributing rice and water. Chainsaw-wielding teams cut debris from blocked roads, 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.
Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim said 70 percent of the city’s 220,000 people are in need of emergency assistance, and that only 70 of the city’s 2,700 employees have been showing up for work.
He also stuck to an earlier estimate that 10,000 people had died in Tacloban even though President Benigno Aquino III has said the final death toll would top 2,500.
On Wednesday, the U.N.’s World Food Program distributed rice and other items to nearly 50,000 people in the Tacloban area. Nearly 10 tons of high energy biscuits were also delivered to the city on Wednesday, with another 25 tons on the way.
The Tacloban airport has also become the site of a makeshift clinic where hundreds of injured people, pregnant women, children and the elderly have poured in. 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 from lack of clean water.
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.