The winds roared overhead, dark clouds and torrential rain turned day into night. By the time Typhoon Haiyan – one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall – left the Philippines yesterday, bound for Vietnam, it had devastated a string of towns and cities and killed an estimated 1,200 people, possibly many more.
Worst hit, it seemed, was the coastal city of Tacloban, on the island of Leyte, where witnesses reported bodies lining the streets. The Philippine Red Cross said yesterday that more than 1,000 residents may have died. Another 200 are thought to have been killed on Samar island, which was first to be hit after Haiyan swept in from the Pacific Ocean on Friday.
Many communities in the typhoon's path, such as Guiuan, a fishing town of 40,000 people on Samar, remained cut off, prompting fears that the death toll will rise substantially in the coming days. In Palo, a town near Tacloban, more than 20 bodies were taken to a church serving as a makeshift morgue.
With wind gusts of up to 235mph, according to some reports, Haiyan carved a path of destruction across the central and southern Philippines, tearing off roofs, uprooting trees and tossing cars around like cardboard boxes. Storm surges the height of a two-storey building engulfed homes and swept their occupants out to sea, while widespread flooding left many areas at risk from landslides.
"We thought it was a tsunami," said one man, Floremil Mazo, referring to the giant waves that inundated his village. Mai Zamora, from the charity World Vision, said that colleagues in Tacloban had "seen galvanised iron sheets [from roofs] flying just like kites".
What may have saved the island nation from an even more catastrophic death toll was the speed with which the typhoon sliced through a series of islands, from east to west. Haiyan, which was expected to reach Vietnam at about 10am local time today (2am GMT), barrelled through the Philippines at 25mph. Any slower, and its 375-mile front of rain clouds would have dumped yet more water, causing further lethal flooding.
A government minister who yesterday flew in a helicopter over Tacloban – home to 220,000 people – said he believed that "hundreds" had been killed in and around that one city. The country's Energy Secretary, Jericho Petilla, said neighbouring towns, including Palo, Ormoc, Burauen and Carigara, "all looked the same … the buildings were all unroofed and littered with fallen trees".
The death toll is likely to rise further still as emergency workers access cut off regions. The head of the Philippine Red Cross, Gwendolyn Pang, said preliminary reports by Red Cross teams on the ground suggested 1,200 people had died while, in London, other aid agencies warned the numbers killed would rise "a good deal more". Ms Pang expressed concern for regions such as Capiz, about 125 miles west of Tacloban, where most of the infrastructure had been destroyed, she said.
Ms Pang told Reuters that more than 1,000 bodies "were seen floating" in Tacloban by Red Cross workers. Television footage showed cars piled on top of each other in the town, and streets littered with toppled power lines, uprooted trees and tin roofing sheets.
"The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami," said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, head of the UN Disaster Assessment Coordination Team in Tacloban. "This is destruction on a massive scale."
With roads blocked by floodwater and fallen trees, telephone lines cut and power down, rescue agencies were struggling to reach the affected areas.
The airport in Tacloban – a city enclosed on three sides by the sea– was wrecked, although three C-130 military transport planes managed to land there yesterday.
Jim Pe, vice-mayor of Coron, a town on Busuanga, the last island battered by the typhoon before it passed the Philippines, described the winds that stormed overhead as "like a 747 flying just above my roof".
Nicola Jones, a British Red Cross worker at Sebu in the South Cotabato province, told The IoS: "There is complete devastation. Entire towns and villages have been washed away by the storm. With the typhoon it is not just the wind and rain but storm surges from the sea. And the areas worst affected are mountainous, so there is also a big problem with mudslides."
More powerful than Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, or Typhoon Nargis, which killed nearly 140,000 people in Burma in 2008, Haiyan affected about four million people in the Philippines, according to the national disaster agency. With several days' warning, about 750,000 people fled their homes for evacuation centres – another factor which may have reduced the death toll.
The category five "super typhoon" weakened to a category four yesterday, although forecasters said it could strengthen again over the South China Sea. In Vietnam, more than 500,000 people had been evacuated from high-risk areas ahead of Haiyan's arrival.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said that the US stood ready to help the Philippines, where some 20 typhoons strike every year.