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In hard-hit region, a grim process begins

Mass burials in Philippines; confusion grows over death totals

Burials began Thursday in Tacloban, six days after the typhoon. The mayor blamed the national government for the delay.

Aaron Favila/Associated Press

Burials began Thursday in Tacloban, six days after the typhoon. The mayor blamed the national government for the delay.

TACLOBAN, Philippines — Pausing occasionally to dodge driving rains by hiding under loose scraps of plywood, a group of firefighters lowered unidentified bodies into a mass grave here Thursday, six days after the city was heavily damaged by Typhoon Haiyan.

For days, the bodies had sat in public. First they lay uncovered on roadsides; then they were placed in body bags. After that, they were collected, and nearly 200 were stored at the biggest site, a government office. In the nearby City Hall, the center of local government relief efforts, the stench from the bodies could be powerful when the wind blew off the harbor.

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“What we are doing is a little bit late,” said Alfred S. Romualdez, the mayor of Tacloban. He blamed the national government for widespread delays in burials and in the distribution of food, water, and basic relief supplies.

“I appreciate the boats coming in, the planes coming in,” he said. “But what we need are foot soldiers, times 10 of what you see now.”

Questions over the total death toll from the disaster appeared to grow more confused Thursday. The government’s Official Gazette website reported 2,357 casualties as of Thursday evening. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the main international conduit for funneling emergency relief to the stricken areas, reported 4,460 deaths on its website update of the crisis.

President Benigno S. Aquino III has said he believes the initial estimate that 10,000 people may have been killed was exaggerated and that the fatalities might be more in the 2,500 range. On Thursday the police official considered responsible for the 10,000 estimate, Chief Superintendent Elmer Soria, was “relieved from his post,” the official Philippines News Agency reported.

The official death toll for the city of Tacloban rose to 2,000 Thursday, but that covers only bodies that have been collected or confirmed by authorized officials. The confirmed bodies are those that are readily visible from roadsides, as relief crews have yet to start digging through piles of debris, much of it studded with nails.

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There are also 3,000 people injured, in the official tally, and 194 officially declared missing.

The massive flow of international aid was bolstered by Thursday’s arrival of the USS George Washington in the Philippine Sea near the Gulf of Leyte. The aircraft carrier will set up a position off the coast of Samar Island to assess the damage and provide medical and water supplies, the Seventh Fleet said in a statement.

The carrier and its strike group together bring 21 helicopters to the area, which can help reach the most inaccessible parts of the disaster zone.

The United Kingdom also is sending an aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious, with seven helicopters and facilities to produce fresh water, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said. It said the ship is expected to reach the area around Nov. 25.

The United States already has a half-dozen other ships — including a destroyer and two huge supply vessels — in the area, along with two P-3 aircraft that are being used to survey the damage so that planners can assess where aid is most needed, the Seventh Fleet said.

Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief who toured Tacloban on Wednesday, said about 11.5 million people have been affected by the typhoon, which includes those who lost loved ones, were injured or suffered damage to their homes 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.

Food distribution has improved, Romualdez, the Tacloban mayor said. Relief workers have now distributed packages of rations in 101 of the city’s 138 neighborhoods, he said, and will reach the rest Friday, he said. Each family is supposed to receive 6½ pounds of rice and some canned goods.

But people are still pleading for help, like members of the family near Santo Niño Church, packed into a pickup truck for shelter. “We need food,” they cried to passers-by.

Romualdez acknowledged that food distribution had been a problem. Large numbers of people have been wandering across the city seeking food or missing family members.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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