TACLOBAN, Philippines — Decomposing bodies still lie along the roads, like a corpse in a pink, short-sleeved shirt and blue shorts facedown in a black, muddy puddle 100 yards from the airport. Down the road is a church that was supposed to be an evacuation center but is littered with the bodies of those who drowned inside.
When a wind-whipped ocean rose Friday night, the ground floors of homes hundreds of yards inland were submerged within minutes, trapping such residents as Virginia Basinang, a 54-year-old retired teacher, who suddenly found herself struggling in waist-deep water on the second floor of her home. Screaming people bobbed in the water that surged through the streets, many grabbing for floating debris.
“Some of them were able to hold on, some were lucky and lived, but most did not,” she said, adding that 14 bodies were left on a wall across the street when the seawater receded a half-hour later. The bodies are still there, and the odor of their decay makes it impossible for Basinang and her family to eat meals at home.
Typhoon Haiyan, among the most powerful in history, slammed into the eastern Philippine city of Tacloban four days ago and cut a path of devastation barreling west across the archipelago nation. In its wake, corpses lay along roads lined with splintered homes and toppled power lines, as the living struggled to survive, increasingly desperate for fresh drinking water, food and shelter. The damage to everything was so great that it was hard even to tally. Mass graves began to fill as relief efforts struggled to get underway.
The roads of this once-thriving city of 220,000 were so clogged with debris from nearby buildings that they were barely discernible. The civilian airport terminal has shattered walls and gaping holes in the roof where steel beams protrude, twisted and torn by winds far more powerful than those of Hurricane Katrina when it made landfall near New Orleans in 2005.
One of the saddest and deadliest moments came when hundreds of people flocked to Tacloban’s domed sports arena at the urging of municipal officials, who believed its sturdy roof would withstand the wind. The roof did, but the arena flooded, and many inside drowned or were trampled in a frenzied rush to higher seats.
The top civil defense official of the Philippines said in an interview after inspecting the damage that the storm surge had been the highest in the country’s modern history, perhaps explaining why so few thought they needed to flee inland and instead went to evacuation centers near the coast. Nothing like this had ever happened. The sea level rose 10 to 13 feet and filled streets and homes deep in the city, propelled by sustained winds of at least 140 miles per hour and gusts that were far stronger.
“It was a tsunami-like storm surge; it is the first time,” said Eduardo del Rosario, the executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, in an interview after inspecting the damage here.
Tacloban has been hit by typhoons for decades, but never before had the sea risen high enough to pour over the swath of low salt marshes and inundate the city’s shady streets, he said.
Emily Ortega, 21, who was about to give birth, was in an evacuation center when the huge storm surge hit, the Associated Press reported. She had to swim and cling to a post to survive before she found safety at the Tacloban airport. Her husband in Manila was unaware of what had happened.
Cheers broke out Monday in the typhoon-devastated airport when Ortega gave birth to a baby girl, with the help of military medics. It was a rare piece of good news for the seaside city where officials fear at least 10,000 were killed.
As a violet sunset melted on Monday into the nearly total darkness of a city without electricity, lighted only by a waxing half moon, dispirited residents walked home after another day of waiting at the airport in hope of fresh water, food or a flight out.
Looters sacked groceries and pharmacies across the city over the weekend, leaving bare shelves for a population now quickly growing hungry and thirsty.
Miriam Refugio, 60, waited in the crowd of Filipinos at the airport seeking a scarce place on a flight to Manila. “Our home was destroyed, there is no food in this town, so we have to flee,” she said, standing with her granddaughter.