TACLOBAN, Philippines (CNN) — Humanitarian workers and military troops from around the world converged on the Eastern Philippines, racing against time to rescue and feed those devastated by a horrific typhoon.
The horror is everywhere thanks to what was Super Typhoon Haiyan when it came ashore six days ago, packing winds 3.5 times as strong as Hurricane Katrina, pushing in a wall of water 15 feet high and washing away towns on many islands.
The death toll from this calamity had increased to 2,360 by Friday morning, with more than 3,850 injured and 77 people reported missing. There’s every expectation the number of fatalities will rise, though no one knows how much.
Reaching all the victims and assisting the survivors — including more than 2 million people in need of food, according to the Philippines government — are both priorities now.
Literally, the biggest sign of this rush to help may be Thursday’s arrival of the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier teeming with 5,500 crew. It’s accompanied by eight more ships that, together, have 80 aircraft — including 21 helicopters — that can deliver supplies to hard-to-reach areas and conduct search-and-rescue missions for those still holding on six days after the epic storm.
But it’s not only the United States rushing to aid the Philippines.
The European Commission notes that Singaporean, Japanese, American and Philippines C-130 aircraft (in addition to U.S. Osprey planes) are rotating in and out of the airport in Tacloban, the city closest to the typhoon’s ground zero.
Australia has sent — in addition to monetary pledges equal to $28 million — C-17 and C-130 military aircraft equipped with doctors, nurses and military support staff. A heavy landing ship has been diverted there to help with relief and recovery, the government said.
And the British government announced Thursday that it’s sending an aircraft carrier of its own, the HMS Illustrious, with a 900-person crew and seven aircraft. This is on top of what amounts to about $27 million in aid.
“We are now in peak danger for the spread of infectious diseases, so HMS Illustrious’ capability to provide drinking water will be invaluable,” said Justine Greening, the UK’s secretary of state for international development. “… This significant step-up in Britain’s military support will ensure a heavy-duty capability remains in place for the crucial weeks ahead.”
Money should be flowing into the East Asian country as well, given the announced pledges so far. The biggest is $500 million in emergency loans from the Asian Development Bank, which also has given $23 million in grants.
Many other countries such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Denmark have donated millions of dollars.
Still, the need is immense and, in some views, the response hasn’t been enough. The U.N. launched an appeal for $301 million in aid; as of Thursday, they’d only gotten 14.4% of that, according to U.N. humanitarian office spokesman Adrian Edwards.
As U.N. relief coordinator Valerie Amos said a day earlier, “This is a major operation that we have to mount.
“We’re getting there. But, in my view, it’s far too slow.”
Supplies running out at hospitals
The evidence of how bad things are is stark, and everywhere, on the streets of Tacloban.
The bloated corpses of dogs lie next to body bags filled with human remains. The stench from wreckage hovers all around, as people sift through debris. A lines snakes around of the airport, filled with those eager to leave. Families huddle inside the city convention center, savoring their first rice in a week but not knowing when their next meal will come.
“We really don’t know what we’re going to do next,” said 30-year-old May May Gula, 30, a member of one of eight families sharing what was left of a room on the convention center’s ground floor.
Hospitals overflow with the injured and the sick. But doctors are barely able to operate, some due to limited supplies and others due to persistent power outages.
The cries of the suffering echoed through a small, cramped one-story Tacloban clinic, where the medicine was all but gone Thursday.
“We don’t have any supplies. We have IVs, but it’s running out,” Dr. Katrina Catabay said.
“Most of the people don’t have water and food,” she adds. “That’s why they come here. Most of the kids are dehydrated. They are suffering from diarrhea and vomiting.”
Food and water are becoming scarce there, too. The military is airlifting out the elderly, children and the sick.
For at least one man, the evacuation came too late.
He died at the clinic. His body was put on a gurney and pushed to the end of a hallway because there is nowhere to put him, the clinic staff said.
Even some typically called upon to help need help themselves.
Take First Seaman Ryan Cardenas, a member of the Philippines Navy, who has helped with recovery efforts after two other cyclones in the past two years that left hundreds dead.
But when Haiyan slammed into the Tacloban naval station where he’s based, he and other sailors clung to rafters in their barracks. Their commanding officer, who was in a separate building almost demolished by the storm, stayed alive by clutching a palm tree’s trunk.
Afterward, sailors helped retrieve some bodies, according to Cardenas. One found his mother sitting dead against a wall.
Now, they’re sorting through the wreckage of the naval station and awaiting orders.
“This is the worst,” Cardenas said, taking a break from fixing a piece of damaged furniture. “We’re both victims and rescuers.”
Senator concerned about crimes against women
In some cases, it’s not that there’s not enough food, water and other necessities. It’s that they are not being given out, because getting to those in need is so difficult.
The danger of violence — whether out of desperation or confusion — looms over the relief efforts.
Police warned a CNN crew to turn back Wednesday on the road south of Tacloban, saying rebels had been shooting at civilians.
“Maybe they are looking for food,” a police commander said.
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, the commander of the USS George Washington’s strike group, acknowledged security is an issue. But it’s hardly the only one, nor even the biggest.
“Obviously, the conditions are pretty grim right now,” Montgomery told CNN Thursday. “But it’s not as much security as it is just the inaccessibility of the roads.”
A Philippines senator said she’s learned of reports of rapes and other crimes against women, some allegedly perpetrated by convicts who escaped prison in the typhoon’s aftermath, the state-run Philippines News Agency reported.
Sen. Nancy Binay particularly expressed alarm after women said on TV that the situation had become worse, with assailants going so far as to break into people’s homes.
Debris hampers delivery of aid
International aid has piled up at airports, blocked from distribution to the starving by miles of debris-strewn roads.
It is taking a long time to clear them and establish communications in to remote areas, said Philippines Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas.
“Imagine a situation where from zero, from zero, no power, light, water, communication, nothing, you have to build the social infrastructures as well as the physical infrastructures for 275,000.”
Only 20 trucks are operating, he said. Half are delivering food; half are clearing roads and removing dead bodies that have been lying around since the storm hit.
Some relief crews are circumventing the blocked roads, wastelands of debris and the danger of crime by flying over it, delivering aid by air into more remote devastated areas.
U.S. Marines have transformed a sleepy airbase in Cebu into a buzzing center of activity that included cargo aircraft, tilt-rotor Ospreys and camouflaged Marines. The Ospreys can land in remote spots where there are no cleared runways, but crews still find themselves hemmed in by debris.
“Some of those neighborhoods are inundated with water, and some of it’s inaccessible,” Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy said.
Roxas would love to see the assistance getting out faster. Still, he feels it’s doubling by the day.
Amos, the top U.N. humanitarian official, pointed Thursday morning to a continuing litany of needs — such as clean water, hygiene kits, hospital supplies, tents and other shelters.
The airport can handle more traffic, and roads are getting better and better. At the same time, Amos said, “We know that much more is required.”
But can it come soon enough? That’s a pressing question in Guiuan, a remote community of about 45,000 people that was among the first areas hit by the full force of the storm.
Alexis Moens, a team leader with Doctors Without Borders, described whole areas as “flattened — houses, medical facilities, rice fields, fishing boats, all destroyed.”
“People are living out in the open; there are no roofs left standing in the whole of Guiuan,” Moens said. “The needs are immense, and there are a lot of surrounding villages that are not yet covered by any aid organizations.”