Stranded passengers board a plane at a damaged airport in Tacloban, Philippines, on Wednesday, November 13. Troops and aid organizations have been confronted with blocked roads and devastating damage while trying to deliver aid to Filipinos struggling to survive in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms in history. See how you can help.
Tacloban, Philippines (CNN) — More than a week after Typhoon Haiyan laid waste to much of the central Philippines, a health official said Friday that some victims are living off the land.
“One of the impressions is that there was total absence of food and water,” Health Undersecretary Janette Garin said in a television interview, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA). “Some victims survived on coconut juice.”
That assessment came as crews were continuing to collect bodies from streets and rubble, raising to 3,621 the national disaster agency’s official death count.
The number of injured stood at 12,165, PNA reported. At least 1,140 were missing.
Sickness, hunger and thirst have settled in here with the sticky, humid heat and stench of rancid flesh hanging over the apocalyptic scene.
Survivors in improvised shelters have kept watch over the bodies of their dead relatives.
Juvelyn Taniega tried to keep busy. She collected old dishes and cleaned them, crouching near where her home once stood and the place where she last saw her husband and six children alive.
She’s found the bodies of three of her children. “My children are decomposing,” she said. In days, she said, no one has come to help and she is still looking for the three still missing.
There are many like her, looking over miles of fields containing the crushed wood and stone that once were their houses.
Cadaver collectors in debris-removal crews uncover some of the dead, while heaving away wreckage from the roads.
But the bodies that initially seemed ubiquitous are becoming a rarer sight, as they are collected.
PNA reported Friday that five-person teams that include a forensic expert and photographer would begin Saturday using a “quick system” for the bodies.
“Under the system, the public will not be allowed to view the identification process but relatives will be asked to participate in the final identification of corpses at an appointed time,” it reported, citing the Department of Health.
Each team will be required to handle 40 corpses per day, it said.
Health Secretary Enrique Ona said that photos will be taken, identifying marks will be documented, and belongings and tissue samples for possible use in DNA testing will be collected, when practical.
Officially, 801 bodies were counted in Tacloban by Friday, but thousands are feared dead in this city, where entire neighborhoods were swept out to sea.
On Friday, children could be seen wandering unattended through the city’s streets.
The young are the most vulnerable and the most needy, UNICEF spokesman Kent Page told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“Health, nutrition, getting them clean water, good sanitation, protection, and we have to consider education also,” Page said.
“Schools have been wiped out and getting kids into child-friendly spaces — where they can feel protected, where they can get a chance to play, where they can get a sense of normalcy back in their life after going through such a devastating experience — is very important.”
Many parents were simply trying to get their children to safety. In some cases, mothers accompanied them out of town to places where food, water and shelter were available, while fathers stayed behind to sort through the remains of their lives, Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez said.
He advised other families to follow their example.
Turning a corner?
By Friday, crews had cleared the major streets of Tacloban, which was once home to 220,000 people and is now largely a ghost town populated by fields of rubble.
Many survivors have converged on the city’s airport, where they were waiting in line for seats on flights out.
Others took to the sea. As naval ships pushed up on beaches like gray whales and dropped their loading bay gates, people laden with possessions entered the bellies of the arks en route to new lives elsewhere.
At the convention center, many stood for hours in long lines under the sun awaiting the next load of food and bottled water to arrive in bulk pallets from donors around the world.
Some were there because they had nowhere else to go.
“We really don’t know what we’re going to do next,” said 30-year-old May May Gula, who was among nine families sharing a room on the convention center’s ground floor.
Reaching and helping the survivors — more than 2 million of whom need food, according to the government — are priorities.
Mayor Romualdez likened Tacloban to a boxer struggling to stand up after getting knocked out.
Recovery efforts were helped on Thursday, when the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier with 5,500 crew, sailed into Philippine waters.
It was accompanied by eight more ships that, together, carry 80 aircraft, including 21 helicopters that can deliver supplies to villages, where many roads have been obliterated, and identify people still cut off from help.
Some who would typically have provided aid found themselves needing help.
Ryan Cardenas, with the Philippine Navy, had helped with recovery efforts in each of the past two years after cyclones that left hundreds dead.
But when Haiyan slammed into the Tacloban naval station where he’s based, he and other sailors were in no position to help others immediately — they stayed alive by clinging to rafters in their barracks.
Their commanding officer, who was in a building badly damaged by the storm, clutched a palm tree’s trunk for survival.
Afterward, the sailors helped retrieve bodies, according to Cardenas. One found his mother sitting dead against a wall.
Later, they sorted through the wreckage of the naval station and awaited orders.
“This is the worst,” Cardenas said, taking a break from fixing a piece of damaged furniture. “We’re both victims and rescuers.”
Concerns of violence
The violence was not all attributable to the weather. A Philippines senator cited reports of rapes and other crimes against women, some allegedly by prison escapees, PNA reported.
Sen. Nancy Binay expressed alarm after hearing TV reports of assailants breaking into homes.
But the U.S. military has said that violent crime is less of an obstacle to providing aid than is the debris that still blocks some roads.
Someone to live for
A man whose wife and child drowned said he can’t get the images out of his mind.
“The first one that I saw was my youngest,” he said. “She fainted, and then she drowned. The water was so fast. And then my wife, when I tried to grab her, I missed her. Then she drowned, and then I never saw her again.”
Over the past week, he said, he has been thinking of killing himself but hasn’t, because he still has one child who needs him.