Helicopters from a US aircraft carrier that has arrived in the region were being marshalled in support of the Philippines relief effort on Friday as Tacloban officials said the typhoon's official death toll had nearly doubled to 4,000.
The death toll from a powerful typhoon that swept the central Philippines nearly doubled overnight, reaching 4,000, as helicopters from a U.S. aircraft carrier and other naval ships began flying food, water and medical teams to ravaged regions.
President Benigno Aquino, caught off guard by the scale of the disaster, has been criticized for the slow pace of aid distribution and unclear estimates of casualties, especially in Tacloban, capital of hardest-hit Leyte province.
A notice board in Tacloban City Hall estimated the deaths at 4,000 on Friday, up from 2,000 a day before, in that town alone. Hours later, Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez apologised and said the toll was for the whole central Philippines.
The toll, marked up on a whiteboard, is compiled by officials who started burying bodies in a mass grave on Thursday.
Romualdez said some people may have been swept out to sea and their bodies lost after a tsunami-like wall of seawater slammed into coastal areas. One neighbourhood with a population of between 10,000 and 12,000 was now deserted, he said.
The City Hall toll is the first public acknowledgement that the number of fatalities would likely far exceed an estimate given this week by Aquino, who said the loss of life from Typhoon Haiyan would be closer to 2,000 or 2,500.
Official confirmed deaths nationwide stood at 2,357 on Friday after the typhoon, one of the strongest ever recorded, roared across the central Philippines a week ago.
Adding to the confusion, the United Nations, citing government figures, put the latest overall death toll at 4,460, but a spokeswoman said it was now reviewing the figure.
On Tuesday, Aquino said estimates of 10,000 dead by local officials were overstated and caused by “emotional trauma”. Elmer Soria, a regional police chief who made that estimate to media, was removed from his post on Thursday.
A police spokesman said Soria was due to be transferred to headquarters in Manila. But a senior police official told Reuters he believed Soria was re-assigned because of his unauthorised casualty estimate.
US helicopters aid relief effort
Survivors have grown increasingly desperate and angry over the pace of aid distribution, which has been hindered by paralysed local governments, widespread looting, a lack of fuel for rescue vehicles and debris-choked roads.
The dead are still being buried. Many corpses remain uncovered on roadsides or trapped under tonnes of wreckage.
“The smell is getting worse and we actually have neighbours who have been brought to hospital because they are getting sick,” said Aiza Umpacan, 27, who lives in Tacloban’s hard-hit San Jose area.
With heavy rain flooding Tacloban’s refuse-clogged streets, Romualdez said the biggest priority was tents.
“We have to start building makeshift communities,” he said.
Foreign aid officials have called the disaster unprecedented for the Philippines.
“There is utter devastation. People are desperate for food, water, shelter, supplies and information about their loved ones,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.
The nuclear-powered USS George Washington aircraft carrier and accompanying ships arrived off eastern Samar province on Thursday evening, carrying 5,000 crew and more than 80 aircraft.
The carrier moved some fixed-wing aircraft ashore to make more room for the helicopters on its flight deck.
U.S. sailors have brought food and water ashore in Tacloban and the town of Guiuan.
The carrier is moored near where U.S. General Douglas MacArthur’s force of 174,000 men landed on Oct. 20, 1944, in one of the biggest Allied victories of World War Two.
Another U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, led a massive aid operation off Indonesia’s Aceh province after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
The Kapitan Felix Oca, a Norwegian merchant navy training vessel, arrived at Tacloban on Friday with goods from the U.N. World Food Programme, including 40 tonnes of rice, medical equipment and 6,200 body bags.
‘The water is coming’
Aquino has been on the defensive over his handling of the storm, given warnings of its projected strength and the risk of a storm surge, and now the speed of relief efforts.
The preliminary number of missing as of Thursday, according to the Red Cross, remained at 22,000. That could include people who have since been located, it said.
More than 920,000 people have been displaced, the UN said. But many areas still have not received aid.
Hundreds of people lined up for food and drink at an evacuee processing centre at Mactan Air Base in Cebu, the country’s second-biggest city.
Some 522 evacuees passed through the centre on Thursday, with hundreds more arriving on Friday, a government coordinator, Erlinda Parame, said.
In one room, children huddled on a mud-streaked floor watching cartoons on a small television.
Nearby, Gerardo Alvarez, 53, sat strapped to a metal wheelchair, straining against the bandages that restrained him.
“The water is coming! I’m going to die!” he shouted.
The traumatised man had escaped the storm surge from a second-storey window of his Tacloban home while his sister and mother, who were praying downstairs, drowned.