A Philippine flag flutters atop the control tower of a damaged airport after super Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city, in the central Philippines. Haiyan is possibly the strongest typhoon ever to hit land. Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
The Philippine Red Cross is estimating that more than 1,200 people were killed in the coastal city of Tacloban and in Samar province when one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall slammed into the country, although the deaths have not yet been confirmed by the government.
Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine Red Cross, said the numbers came from preliminary reports by Red Cross teams in Tacloban and Samar, among the most devastated areas hit by Typhoon Haiyan on Friday.
"An estimated more than 1,000 bodies were seen floating in Tacloban as reported by our Red Cross teams," she told Reuters. "In Samar, about 200 deaths. Validation is ongoing."
She said she expected a more exact number to emerge after a more precise counting of bodies on the ground in those regions.
Freelance reporter Dean Bernardo told CBC News that the Red Cross' estimate reflects raw data collected on the ground and includes people who may not be dead, but who are missing. The Philippine government's death toll, which is in the hundreds, is more conservative because it is following a process to confirm reported deaths.
Bernardo added that the Red Cross' estimate is possible because teams from the organization have visited municipal regions that have not yet been covered by the government.
Tacloban in ruins
Tacloban was in ruins Saturday, a day after being ravaged by one of the strongest typhoons on record, as horrified residents spoke of storm surges as high as trees and authorities said they were expecting a "very high number of fatalities."
At least 138 people were confirmed dead in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. The typhoon slammed into six central Philippine islands on Friday, wiping away buildings and leveling seaside homes. At least 118 of the confirmed deaths were on hardest-hit Leyte Island, where Tacloban is located, said national disaster agency spokesman Maj. Reynaldo Balido.
But after arriving in Tacloban on Saturday, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said it was too early to know how many people had died in the storm, which was heading toward Vietnam after moving away from the Philippines.
"The rescue operation is ongoing. We expect a very high number of fatalities as well as injured," Roxas said. "All systems, all vestiges of modern living — communications, power, water — all are down. Media is down, so there is no way to communicate with the people in a mass sort of way."
President Benigno Aquino III said the casualties "will be substantially more," but gave no figure or estimate. He said the government's priority was to restore power and communications in isolated areas to allow for the delivery of relief and medical assistance to victims.
The Philippine Red Cross and its partners were preparing for a major relief effort "because of the magnitude of the disaster," said the agency's chairman, Richard Gordon.
The airport in Tacloban, a city of 200,000 located about 580 kilometres southeast of Manila, looked like a muddy wasteland of debris Saturday, with crumpled tin roofs and upturned cars. The airport tower's glass windows were shattered, and air force helicopters were busy flying in and out at the start of relief operations.
"The devastation is, I don't have the words for it," Roxas said. "It's really horrific. It's a great human tragedy."
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino was "speechless" when he told him of the devastation the typhoon had wrought in Tacloban.
"I told him all systems are down," Gazmin said. "There is no power, no water, nothing. People are desperate. They're looting."
U.S. Marine Col. Mike Wylie surveyed the damage in Tacloban prior to possible American assistance. "The storm surge came in fairly high and there is significant structural damage and trees blown over," said Wylie, who is a member of the U.S.-Philippines Military Assistance Group based in Manila.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that America "stands ready to help."
The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said in a message to Aquino that the EC had sent a team to assist the Philippine authorities and that "we stand ready to contribute with urgent relief and assistance if so required in this hour of need."
A World Vision aid worker in the Philippines said Saturday it is launching its biggest relief effort ever in the region, mobilizing more than 500 local staff with hopes of reaching 1.2 million people.
"The work is not yet over for the hundreds of thousands of survivors. A massive relief effort is now underway to provide critical supplies like food and water," said Aaron Aspi from the province of Bohol.
Weather officials said Haiyan had sustained winds of 235 kilometres per hour, with gusts of 275 km/h, when it made landfall. By those measurements, Haiyan would be comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane in the U.S., and nearly in the top category, a 5.
Hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons are the same, but have different names in different parts of the world.
Typhoon headed for Vietnam
The storm's sustained winds weakened Saturday to 163 km/h with stronger gusts as it blew farther away from the Philippines toward Vietnam.
Haiyan was forecast to hit central Vietnam's coast on Sunday afternoon, making its way to the northern part of the country before likely weakening to a tropical storm.
Vietnamese authorities in four central provinces were evacuating more than 500,000 people from high-risk areas to government buildings, schools and other concrete homes able to withstand strong winds.
"The evacuation is being conducted with urgency," disaster official Nguyen Thi Yen Linh said from central Danang City, where some 76,000 were being moved to safety.
Hundreds of thousands of others were being taken to shelters in the provinces of Quang Ngai, Quang Nam and Thua Thien Hue. Schools were closed and two deputy prime ministers were sent to the region to direct the preparations.