Philippines Typhoon: Death Toll Rises as Thousands Feared Dead

11/09/2013 at 11:40 AM EST

Philippines Typhoon: Death Toll Rises as Thousands Feared Dead
Typhoon-ravaged Philippine province of Leyte
Dennis M. Sabangan/EPA/Landov
The central Philippine city of 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. But Philippine Red Cross Secretary General Gwen Pang said that agency field staff in the region estimated the toll was about 1,000. Pang, however, emphasized that it was "just an estimate."

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 Max 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," he 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."

A Major Relief Effort

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 kilometers (360 miles) 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."

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 the United States "stands ready to help."

Weather officials said Haiyan had sustained winds of 147 mph with gusts of 170 mph 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.

Inside the Storm

One Tacloban resident said he and others took refuge inside a parked Jeep to protect themselves from the storm, but the vehicle was swept away by a surging wall of water.

"The water was as high as a coconut tree," said 44-year-old Sandy Torotoro, a bicycle taxi driver who lives near the airport with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. "I got out of the jeep and I was swept away by the rampaging water with logs, trees and our house, which was ripped off from its mooring."

"When we were being swept by the water, many people were floating and raising their hands and yelling for help. But what can we do? We also needed to be helped," Torotoro said.

In the aftermath, people were seen weeping while retrieving bodies of loved ones inside buildings and on a street that was littered with fallen trees, roofing material and other building parts torn off in the typhoon's fury. All that was left of one large building whose walls were smashed in were the skeletal remains of its rafters.

Nearly 800,000 people were forced to flee their homes and damage was believed to be extensive. About 4 million people were affected by the typhoon, the national disaster agency said.

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.

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