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Amid devastation, desperation swells in Philippines

Filipinos plead for food, water; UN team, US aid begin arriving

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan filled the streets as they looked for supplies in downtown Tacloban in the central Philippines on Monday.

Aaron Favila/Associated Press

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan filled the streets as they looked for supplies in downtown Tacloban in the central Philippines on Monday.

TACLOBAN, Philippines — Bodies lay uncollected and uncounted in the streets and thousands of desperate survivors pleaded for food, water, and medicine as rescue workers took on a daunting task Monday in the typhoon-battered islands of the Philippines.

The hard-hit city of Tacloban resembled a landfill from the air, with only a few concrete buildings standing in the wake of one of the most powerful storms to ever hit land, packing 147-miles-per-hour winds and whipping up 20-foot walls of sea water that tossed ships inland and swept many out to sea.

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‘‘Help. SOS. We need food,’’ read a message painted by a survivor in large letters on the ravaged city’s port, where water lapped at the edge.

Authorities have estimated that the typhoon killed 10,000 or more people, but with the slow pace of recovery, the official death toll three days after the storm made landfall remained at 942. With shattered communications and transportation links, the final count was probably days away.

There was no one to carry away the dead, which decomposed along the main road from the airport to Tacloban along the country’s eastern seaboard.

At a small naval base, eight swollen corpses were submerged in storm water. Officers had yet to move them, saying they had no body bags or electricity to preserve them.

‘‘I don’t believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way — every single building, every single house,’’ US Marine Brigadier General Paul Kennedy said after taking a helicopter flight over Tacloban, the largest city in Leyte province.

He spoke on the tarmac at the airport, where two Marine C-130 planes were parked with supplies.

Along with a contingent of Marines, the US military dispatched food, water, and generators to the city, the first outside help in what will swell into a major international relief mission. An American aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, is expected to arrive in about two days.

Authorities said at least 9.7 million people were affected by Typhoon Haiyan, which observers say was the deadliest natural disaster to beset this poor Southeast Asian nation.

‘‘Please tell my family I’m alive,’’ said Erika Mae Karakot as she stood among a throng of people waiting for aid. ‘‘We need water and medicine because a lot of the people are wounded.’’

Philippine soldiers were distributing food and water, and assessment teams from the United Nations and other international agencies were seen Monday for the first time.

Authorities said they had evacuated some 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon, but many evacuation centers proved to be no protection against the wind and rising water. The Philippine National Red Cross, responsible for warning the region and giving advice, said people were not prepared for a storm surge.

‘‘Imagine America, which was prepared and very rich, still had a lot of challenges at the time of Hurricane Katrina, but what we had was three times more than what they received,’’ said Gwendolyn Pang, the group’s executive director.

The wind, rain, and coastal storm surges transformed neighborhoods into twisted piles of debris, blocking roads and trapping decomposing bodies underneath. Cars and trucks lay upended among flattened homes, and bridges and ports were washed away.

‘‘In some cases the devastation has been total,’’ said Rene Almendras, secretary to the Cabinet.

In Tacloban, residents stripped malls, shops, and homes of food, water, and consumer goods. Officials said some of the looting smacked of desperation but in other cases people hauled away TVs, refrigerators, Christmas trees, and even a treadmill.

Kennedy said Philippine forces were handling security well and US troops were ‘‘looking at how to open up roads and land planes and helicopters’’ in order to bring in shelter, water, and other supplies.

Still, those caught in the storm were worried that aid would not arrive soon enough.

‘‘We’re afraid that it’s going to get dangerous in town because relief goods are trickling in very slow,’’ said Bobbie Womack, an American missionary from Athens, Tenn. ‘‘I know it’s a massive, massive undertaking to try to feed a town of over 150,000 people. They need to bring in shiploads of food.’’

Womack’s husband, Larry, said he chose to stay at their beachside home in Tacloban, only to find the storm surge engulfing it. He survived by climbing onto a beam in the roof.

Marvin Daga, a 19-year-old student, tried to ride out the storm in his home with his ailing father, Mario, but the storm surge carried the building away.

They clung to each other while the house floated for a while, but it eventually crumbled and they fell into churning waters. The teen grabbed a coconut tree with one hand and his father with the other, but he slipped out of his grasp. He has not been able to find him.

The Philippine president, Benigno Aquino III, declared a ‘‘state of national calamity,’’ allowing the central government to release emergency funds quicker and impose price controls on staple goods.

He said the two worst-hit provinces, Leyte and Samar, had witnessed ‘‘massive destruction and loss of life’’ but that elsewhere casualties were low.

Haiyan hit the eastern seaboard of the Philippines on Friday and quickly barreled across its central islands, with winds that gusted to 170 miles per hour.

The Philippines, an archipelago nation of more than 7,000 islands, is annually buffeted by tropical storms and typhoons.

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