Survivors of the Philippines typhoon are becoming ever more desperate - triggering a series of clashes with the authorities and increasingly making it unsafe for aid organisations to do their work efficiently.
As countless thousands of people still wait for arrival of the most basic of emergency supplies, it was reported that people had overrun a food warehouse, setting off a wall collapse that killed eight people, and making away with thousands of sacks of rice. Meanwhile, on Wednesday the security forces exchanged gunfire with an armed group.
Much of the insecurity is centred around the town of Tacloban, usually home to 220,000 people, and one of the places that bore the brunt of of the storm. The mood in the town is becoming increasingly angry as thousands try to flee, demanding to know why aid is arriving so slowly.
Officials say the needs of the 600,000 people struggling in the aftermath of the storm are simple – water, sanitation, food and medicine. But while the response to the storm is slowly gathering pace, there are many problems.
Aid workers say the situation on the ground has become increasingly difficult and dangerous and that organisations are being undermined by the risk to their staff.
“The needs are water and sanitation and food,” Paul del Rosario of Oxfam told The Independent. “But a problem is that the security situation is hampering our work. We don’t want to put our staff in danger. It’s hard to work if there is so much risk.”
Eight people were crushed to death when a crowd of people stormed a rice warehouse around 15 miles from Tacloban on Tuesday and carried off thousands of sacks of grain, according to National Food Authority spokesman Rex Estoperez.
The Associated Press said that on Wednesday, gunfire broke out close to the town’s San Juanico bridge as the security forces clashed with armed men. However, the precise circumstances of what took place – as with much of the situation – remains unclear.
Since the storm, people have broken into homes, shops and garages, where they have stripped the shelves of food, water and other goods. Authorities have struggled to stop the looting. There have been unconfirmed reports of armed gangs of robbers.
Yet officials say that many, if not most, of the so-called “looters” are simply ordinary people desperate to feed their families. “There are some cases but not as many as people believe,” said Col Miguel Ernesto Okol, chief spokesman for the Philippines Air Force (PAF), which has been heading the emergency operation.
He said that three of the PAF’s C130 transporter planes were working in tandem with three from the US military – flying in rotation. There are seven PAF helicopters, along with four from the US.
Yet despite the efforts of the military, the series of violent incidents in and around Tacloban suggest relief efforts are simply not happening quickly enough. Some have said that parts of the disaster zone are descending into chaos. An 8 pm to 5 am curfew is in place across the region.
Planes, ships and trucks were all on their way to the region, loaded with generators, water purifying kits and emergency lights, equipment all considered vital to sustaining a major relief mission. Airports were reopening in the region, and the US military said it was installing equipment to allow the damaged Tacloban airport to operate 24-7.
Tacloban’s mayor, Alfred Romualdez, urged residents to flee the city because local authorities were having trouble providing food and water and maintaining order, it was reported. He said the city was in desperate need of trucks to distribute relief shipments that were accumulating at the city’s airport as well as equipment to pull decaying corpses from the rubble.
The official death toll now stands at 2,357, according a national tally kept by the country’s disaster agency. That figure is expected to rise significantly, when accurate information is collected from the entirety of the affected disaster zone, which spreads over a wide swath of the eastern and central Philippines but appears to be concentrated on two main islands, Leyte and Samar.
“This morning there was some good news because the death toll was lower than most had expected,” said Chris de Bono, a spokesman for Unicef. “But we have seen a steady decline in the security situation in Tacloban.
Mr de Bono said aid was making its way by road as well as plane. But the scale of the problem is massive.
The congressman for Eastern Samar province, a coastal region that bore the full force of the storm, said 211 had been killed there and 45 were missing.
He said some villages have been wiped out, with practically no structures standing. In one town, bodies are still lying on the roads because there is no-one to help bury them. Other towns have conducted mass burials.
“The situation there was horrible,” Ben Evardone told a local television station. “Some communities disappeared, entire villages were wiped out. They were shouting ‘food, food, food’' when they saw me.
At the Tacloban airport, makeshift clinics have been set up and thousands of people are waiting to be flown out. A doctor said supplies of antibiotics and anaesthetics arrived Tuesday for the first time. “Until then, patients had to endure the pain,” said Dr Victoriano Sambale.
Relief officials said comparing the pace of this operation to those in past disasters was largely pointless because each posed unique challenges.
In Indonesia’s Aceh, the worst-hit region by the 2004 tsunami, relief hubs were easier to set up than in Tacloban. The main airport there was functioning 24-7 within a couple of days of the disaster.
While devastation in much of the city of Banda Aceh was total, large inland parts of the city were undamaged, providing a base for aid operations and temporary accommodation for the homeless.
One senior UN official told a private meeting of aid workers: “The day after tomorrow is no good. The aid has to arrive now.”
Joe Lowry, of the International Organisation for Migration, said the situation in Tacloban was “appalling”. There is a sickening stench of death in the air. They have got most of the bodies into body bags. But wherever you go the stench of death is everywhere.”
He said officials had been warned that the situation in regard to water would become critical within 100 hours.
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