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Typhoon Haiyan: National state of calamity declared in Philippines as international relief workers struggle to reach survivors

Authorities say at least 9.7 million people across 41 provinces have been affected
  • @kathymarksoz

A state of national calamity has been declared in the Philippines following the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan.

In an official statement issued by president Benigno Aquino, he said that the measure had been taken to allow the military and authorities to both speed up and protect the relief process.

Hundreds of soldiers have been deployed to Tacloban, the remote eastern city worst affected by the storm, which last night saw a Red Cross convoy looted by a mob desperate for food, clean water and medicine.

Authorities said that at least 9.7 million people across 41 provinces have been affected by the storm, one of the most powerful ever to hit land and likely to be the deadliest natural disaster experienced by the Philippines.

Mr Aquino said that Leyte and Samar, the two worst affected provinces, had suffered massive loss of life and destruction.

In declaring an official state of calamity, the government has also given itself the power to control prices of basic commodities and services - a measure it says will “avoid overpricing and hoarding of vital products”.

International relief workers are struggling to reach the hundreds of thousands left homeless, while witnesses on the ground say a coordinated centre for the effort is still yet to be established.

Mr Aquino said: “In the coming days, be assured: help will reach you faster and faster. My appeal to you all is: remaining calm, praying, cooperating with, and assisting one another are the things that will help us to rise from this calamity.”

US Marines were dispatched this morning to Tacloban. Flying in from Manila's Vilamor air base, they were among the first contingents of the ballooning aid programme actually able to reach those in need.

Click here to see a gallery of images of devastation from Typhoon Haiyan

A flurry of major international relief teams is expected to arrive in the coming days, but they face a challenge navigating their way through the devastated terrain.

Feeding Tacloban's survivors will be the first priority - but progress on this front has been slow. UNICEF Philippines Representative Tomoo Hozumi said: “Reaching the worst affected areas is very difficult, with limited access due to the damage caused by the typhoon to infrastructure and communications.”

Richard Gordon, head of the Philippine Red Cross, told the BBC: “It's absolute bedlam right now, but hopefully it will turn out better as more and more supplies get into the area.

“It's only now that [relief workers] were able to get in and we're beginning just to bring in the necessary food items... as well as water and other things that they need.”

There will be no respite from the weather, either - local forecasters are predicting a “tropical depression” to hit vast swathes of the typhoon-affected area late on Tuesday. Though a minor system compared to Haiyan, it could cause local flooding and will only serve to hinder the relief effort even more.

The scale of destruction visited on the Philippines by “super typhoon” Haiyan started to become clear on Sunday as the winds subsided, with 10,000 people estimated to have died in Tacloban alone, entire villages washed away and hungry survivors looting grocery shops and attacking trucks bringing aid.

After flying over the island of Leyte – probably the worst affected place – in a helicopter, the Interior Secretary, Manuel Roxas, said: “From the shore and moving a kilometre inland, there are no structures standing. I don’t know how to describe what I saw… It’s horrific.” He added: “Imagine … all the shanties, everything, destroyed. They were just like matchsticks flung inland.”

The provincial capital, Tacloban bore the brunt of the ferocious winds and monster waves whipped up by one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, corpses floated in floodwaters, hung in trees and lay among the debris of flattened buildings. Survivors wept as they retrieved the bodies of loved ones from the ruins of their homes.

With emergency teams yet to reach coastal villages cut off by floods and landslides, authorities predicted an even higher death toll. There were grave fears for places such as Guiuan, a town of 40,000 people which was the first to be struck by Haiyan as it roared across the central and southern Philippines on Friday, flinging ships inland and destroying 70 to 80 per cent of buildings in its path.

In Tacloban, which had a population of 220,000, “people are walking like zombies looking for food,” said Jenny Chu, a medical student. Mobs attacked trucks bringing in food, tents and water, according to the Philippine Red Cross, and ATM machines were reportedly broken open.

Troops and police were sent in to restore order after looters raided shops and petrol stations in search of food, water and fuel. President Benigno Aquino, who visited Tacloban yesterday, said the government was considering introducing martial law.

One teacher, Andrew Pomeda, told AFP on Sunday: “Some people are losing their minds from hunger or from losing their families. People are becoming violent. They are looting business establishments, the malls, just to find food, rice and milk… I am afraid that in one week people will be killing from hunger.”

The typhoon – which passed through Vietnam in a weaker state early on Monday and was downgraded to a tropical storm as it entered southern China  – produced tsunami-like storm surges which drowned many in its path. Others died beneath collapsed buildings. “The water was as high as a coconut tree,” Sandy Torotoro, a bicycle taxi driver in Tacloban, told Associated Press.

A Jeep in which he and others tried to shelter was carried away by a wall of water, he said. “I got out of the Jeep, and I was swept away by the rampaging water, with logs, trees and our house, which was ripped from its moorings… Many people were floating and raising their hands and yelling for help. But what can we do? We also needed to be helped.”

Nancy Chang, who was in Tacloban on a business trip, said seawater reached the second floor of her hotel. She walked for three hours, through mud and debris, to reach the airport, where hundreds of people were trying to get flights out. With the airport badly damaged, only military planes  were operating.

Even by the standards of the Philippines, which is prone to typhoons as well as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, Haiyan is a natural disaster of epic proportions – and almost certainly its most lethal to date.

Authorities had plenty of notice, and evacuated nearly 800,000 people. But “how can you beat that typhoon?” asked the head of defence forces, Voltaire Gazmin, questioned about whether the government had been sufficiently prepared. “It’s the strongest on Earth. We’ve done everything we can, we had lots of preparation.”

In Tacloban, “all vestiges of modern living – communications, power, water – are all down”, said Mr Roxas. He described the typhoon, with winds of up to 235mph, as “a great human tragedy”.

Hundreds of people died in the fishing village of Palo, near Tacloban, while on the neighbouring island of Samar 300 people in one town were dead and 2,000 missing, according to provincial officials. Other towns have yet to be reached by rescuers. .

The manager of Tacloban airport, Efren Nagrama, said that water levels rose by 4m. “We escaped through the windows, and I held on to a pole for about an hour as rain, seawater and wind swept through the airport,” he said. “Some of my staff survived by clinging to trees. I prayed hard until the water subsided.”