Officials projected the death toll could climb even higher when emergency crews reach areas cut off by flooding and landslides. Even in the disaster-prone Philippines, which regularly contends with earthquakes, volcanoes and tropical cyclones, Typhoon Haiyan appears to be the deadliest natural disaster on record.
Haiyan hit the eastern seaboard of the Philippine archipelago on Friday and quickly barreled across its central islands before exiting into the South China Sea, packing winds of 147 miles per hour that gusted to 170 mph, and a storm surge that caused sea waters to rise 20 feet.
It wasn't until Sunday that the scale of the devastation became clear, with local officials on hardest-hit Leyte Island saying that there may be 10,000 dead in the provincial capital of Tacloban alone. Reports also trickled in from elsewhere on the island, and from neighboring islands, indicating hundreds, if not thousands more deaths, though it will be days before the full extent of the storm's impact can be assessed.
"On the way to the airport we saw many bodies along the street," said Philippine-born Australian Mila Ward, 53, who was waiting at the Tacloban airport to catch a military flight back to Manila. "They were covered with just anything – tarpaulin, roofing sheets, cardboards." She said she passed "well over 100" dead bodies along the way.
In the storm's aftermath, people wept while retrieving the bodies of loved ones from inside buildings. On a street littered with fallen trees, roofing material and other wreckage, all that was left of one large building were the skeletal remains of its rafters.
The airport in Tacloban, about 580 kilometers (360 miles) southeast of Manila, was a muddy wasteland of debris, with crumpled tin roofs and overturned cars. The airport tower's glass windows were shattered, and air force helicopters were flying in and out as relief operations got underway. Residential homes lining the road into Tacloban city were all blown or washed away.
"All systems, all vestiges of modern living – communications, power, water – all are down," Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said after visiting Tacloban on Saturday. "There is no way to communicate with the people."
A Great Human TragedyOn the island of Leyte, regional police chief Elmer Soria said the provincial governor had told him there were about 10,000 deaths there, primarily from drowning and collapsed buildings. Most of the deaths were in Tacloban, a city of about 200,000 that is the biggest on Leyte Island. A mass burial was planned for Sunday in a nearby town.
The massive casualties occurred even though the government had evacuated nearly 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon. About 4 million people were affected by the storm, the national disaster agency said.
Challenged to respond to a disaster of such magnitude, the Philippine government also accepted help from its U.S. and European allies.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the military's Pacific Command to deploy ships and aircraft to support search-and-rescue operations and airlift emergency supplies, while European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso sent Aquino a message saying "we stand ready to contribute with urgent relief and assistance if so required in this hour of need."
UNICEF estimated that about 1.7 million children are living in areas impacted by the typhoon, according to the agency's representative in the Philippines Tomoo Hozumi. UNICEF's supply division in Copenhagen was loading 60 metric tons of relief supplies for an emergency airlift expected to arrive in the Philippines on Tuesday.
"The devastation is ... I don't have the words for it," Interior Secretary Roxas said. "It's really horrific. It's a great human tragedy."