TACLOBAN, Philippines — Typhoon gridlock threatened rescue operations in the most devastated part of the Philippines on Wednesday, with aid piling up but few ways to distribute it, plentiful gasoline but no merchants willing to sell it, and an influx of emergency volunteers but no place to house them.
The intensifying frustrations of delivering aid five days after Typhoon Haiyan struck elicited a plea from the top UN relief official to the mayor of Tacloban, imploring him to persuade gas station owners to open so relief convoys could begin expansion into the flattened port city of 220,000 and interior regions. The gas stations have fuel, but the owners fear theft and violence if they reopen.
“We have to have fuel, so we have to have some kind of refueling center,” Valerie Amos, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the mayor, Alfred S. Romualdez, at a public meeting.
Romualdez told Amos that the city could not easily cope with the influx of aid workers, as practically no vehicles were available to bring them in from the airport, while food and drinking water were running out. “I’m asking those who come here, ‘Please be self-sufficient, because there’s nothing.’ ”
The mayor’s best advice to residents was to find shelter with relatives if they could, saying that the local authorities were struggling to provide food and water and faced difficulties in maintaining law and order.
The paralysis was epitomized by the first attempt in Tacloban to conduct a mass burial of victims, whose corpses had been on the streets and under piles of debris. The attempt ended in failure as trucks carrying more than 200 corpses were forced to turn back when they faced gunfire at the city limits. The identities of the gunmen were not clear.
Covered with black plastic tarpaulin, the bodies were returned to a makeshift outdoor morgue at the foot of the hill topped by City Hall.
Tacloban’s paralysis was acknowledged later in the day by the US government, which is playing a major role in the emergency effort, using military cargo planes to bring in aid and to evacuate the most vulnerable. In a phone briefing from Washington, a senior official assigned to the effort said that it was focused mainly on food, water, shelter, and medicine, but that the provision of fuel in the city was “very much on our radar screen — that is a whole part of the logistical morass we’re working our way through.”
Another senior US official in the briefing said the number of US uniformed personnel on the ground in the Philippines, currently at about 300, would rise to 1,000 in the next few days, with most coming from a Marine base in Okinawa, Japan. The official said the United States was helping transport Filipino soldiers to the disaster zone, which cuts through the middle of the country.
The US officials also said that a land route into Tacloban had been reopened, which would ease the bottleneck at the airport. “It was like squeezing orange juice through a straw,” one said. “Now we have more straws.”
International relief groups were rapidly escalating their response in Tacloban and elsewhere. Doctors Without Borders, the Paris-based medical agency, said its teams had traveled by car, boat, plane, and helicopter to some of the outlying areas of northern Cebu Island, eastern Samar Island, Panay Island, and western Leyte province, which neither the Philippine government nor other agencies had been able to reach. The teams found desperation, the group said. The village of Guiuan in Samar was flattened and half of Roxas City on Panay was destroyed.
“Access is extremely difficult and is preventing people from receiving help,” said Dr. Natasha Reyes, the group’s emergency coordinator in the Philippines.
Despite the problems in Tacloban, the World Food Program said Wednesday that it had provided family-size packets of rice and canned goods to nearly 50,000 residents and that 500 tons of rice was en route.
Romualdez said the city desperately needed trucks and drivers to distribute food piling up at the airport, as well as more trucks, heavy equipment, and personnel to retrieve decaying corpses.
“I have to decide at every meeting which is more important, relief goods or picking up cadavers,” he said.
With service stations closed, gasoline and diesel fuel, at any price, have almost disappeared, immobilizing aid vehicles and private cars alike. Scavengers have siphoned fuel from the many vehicles crushed, overturned, or abandoned.
Typhoon Haiyan did not just destroy the electricity grid. The storm surge, when the sea level rose by as much as 13 feet in minutes, disabled most of the city’s generators, Yaokasin said, and the lack of fuel has limited operations for the remaining units.
With food stripped from the shelves of many grocery stores, surviving store owners are refusing to bring in new supplies and reopen, Yaokasin said.
“The police visibility has to be there to the point that businesses feel the security to open their businesses,” he said.
The death toll remained a mystery. The Philippine government put the official toll at 2,275 as of Wednesday. Few deaths have been confirmed in Tacloban, because officials say they are counting only bodies that they have collected or formally recorded.
But Yaokasin said the leader of a neighborhood of 4,000 had notified him that a quarter of the residents had died.
Jennifer Cicco, the Philippines Red Cross administrator for Leyte Island, said thousands of people were missing and were presumed to have been swept out to sea. Arié Lévy, the president of Rescuers Without Borders, a French nonprofit, visited a village a mile beyond Tacloban on Wednesday and estimated that he saw a thousand bodies.