LAPU LAPU CITY, Philippines – As authorities in this typhoon-ravaged nation struggled on Tuesday with a mass-scale relief effort, survivors said they were becoming increasingly desperate, short on food and supplies and terrified about waiting longer.
A few residents of hard-hit areas scrawled signs with a simple message: “Help us.”
Nearly five days after the once-a-century winds of Typhoon Haiyan gashed the central Philippines, some aid workers say progress has been too slow. Many who want to help are waiting at airports and air bases, hoping to catch rides from the shorthanded Philippine military.
The typhoon cut a path through the middle of the country, directly affecting about 10 percent of the population. The government’s official death tally stood at 1,744 Tuesday morning, but thousands of others are missing and the toll is expected to climb.
Earlier, two officials on the ground had said they feared as many as 10,000 might be dead, but in a televised interview on CNN on Tuesday, President Benigno Aquino III said the death toll could be closer to 2,000 or 2,500.
Though more than 30 countries have pledged aid so far, the distribution of goods has been held up by a daunting set of problems. Some roads are impassible. Many towns lost their own emergency workers.
Tuesday, some commercial flights into the devastated region were canceled as another, much milder tropical storm dumped more rain.
Here in Cebu province, the government is using Mactan Air Base – a former U.S. Air Force facility – as a staging ground for emergency work. But on Tuesday, only two of the three C-130 military transport planes based here were operational; the third was waiting to be repaired.
Hundreds huddled in a dark waiting room on the base, hoping for a chance to board a plane carrying relief supplies.
Relatives had camped out for hours, even days, holding plastic bags of supplies – packaged noodles, bottled water, biscuits. Queued up with them on hard plastic chairs were aid workers, eager to assess the needs on the ground and mobilize assistance.
“You see how difficult getting access to the C-130s,” said Jorge Durand Zurdo of the Spanish Red Cross, part of a five-person that hopes to get to Tacloban, a city where 10,000 are feared dead.
Zurdo said his group can set up mobile water treatment plants to address a severe potable water shortage. “We can treat dirty and muddy waters, rainwater, polluted wells, rivers and streams,” he said.
In the days since Haiyan barreled through, the scale of the disaster has gradually become clearer. In the first hours, the Philippine government said – cautiously – that the country may have escaped major damage. Then information trickled in from remote areas, telling of hundreds or thousands dead, and others swept to sea.
Aerial photographs taken from helicopters that surveyed the damage showed entire towns – what had been a patchwork of colorful roofs and palm trees – churned and flattened into a brown, wet rot.
Tuesday brought a sharper sense of the battle for survival, as local journalists and news services reached harder-hit areas.
Medellin, a town in northern Cebu, has run out of syringes and tetanus vaccines, news organizations here reported. In another town, Tabogon, wet and thirsty children took to the streets with placards saying they needed help, a Philippine journalist said on Twitter. Photos showed survivors using any available materials for shelter. One man rested under sheet metal, held several feet above the ground by furniture.
Many local government officials who would ordinarily be an integral part of the disaster-relief effort have also been harmed by the typhoon. The Department of Public Works and Highways is trying to reopen roads with the help of local workers who themselves may have lost homes, family members or household possessions, said Rogelio Singson, the department’s secretary.