TACLOBAN, Philippines – Rescuers faced blocked roads and damaged airports on Monday as they raced to deliver desperately needed tents, food and medicines to the typhoon-devastated eastern Philippines where thousands are believed dead.
Three days after the Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the region, the full scale of the disaster — the biggest faced by the Philippines — was only now becoming apparent. International aid groups and the U.S military were mobilizing a major international relief mission for a large swath of the country's already poor eastern seaboard.
The winds and the sea waves whipped up were so strong that they washed hulking ships inland, which now stood incongruously amid debris of buildings, trees, road signs and people's belongings.
Authorities estimated that up to 10,000 people may have died. But the government has been unable to give official death toll yet. Still, officials said after surveying the areas there is little doubt that the death toll will be that high, or even higher.
"In some cases the devastation has been total," said Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras.
In Manila's Vilamor air force base, a contingent of U.S. Marines was preparing to fly in relief supplies in two C-130 transport planes to Tacloban, a city in Leyte province that was badly hit by the storm. From the air, the city resembled a garbage dump punctuated by a few concrete buildings that remained standing. Corpses hung from trees and were scattered on sidewalks. Many were buried in flattened buildings.
Survivors wandered through the remains of their flattened wooden homes looking to salvage belongings or to search for loved ones.
Very little assistance had reached the city, residents reported. Some took food, water and consumer goods from abandoned shops, malls and homes.
"This area has been totally ravaged," said Sebastien Sujobert, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Tacloban. "Many lives were lost, a huge number of people are missing, and basic services such as drinking water and electricity have been cut off," he said.
Haiyan hit the eastern seaboard of the Philippines on Friday and quickly barreled across its central islands, packing winds of 235 kph (147 mph) that gusted to 275 kph (170 mph), and a storm surge of 6 meters (20 feet).
Even though authorities had evacuated some 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon, the death toll was so high because many evacuation centers — brick-and-mortar schools, churches and government buildings — could not withstand the winds and water surges. Officials said people who had huddled in these buildings drowned or were swept away.
It inflicted serious damage to at least six islands in the middle of the eastern seaboard, with Leyte, Samar and the northern part of Cebu appearing to bear the brunt of the storm. About 4 million people were affected by the storm, the national disaster agency said.
Video from Eastern Samar province's Guiuan township — the first area where the typhoon made landfall — also showed a trail of devastation similar to Tacloban. Many houses were flattened and roads were strewn with debris and uprooted trees. The ABS-CBN video showed several bodies on the street, covered with blankets.
"I have no house, I have no clothes. I don't know how I will restart my life, I am so confused," an unidentified woman said, crying. "I don't know what happened to us. We are appealing for help. Whoever has a good heart, I appeal to you — please help Guiuan."
The United Nations said it was sending supplies but access to the worst hit areas was a challenge.
"Reaching the worst affected areas is very difficult, with limited access due to the damage caused by the typhoon to infrastructure and communications," said UNICEF Philippines Representative Tomoo Hozumi.
The storm's sustained winds weakened to 120 kph (74 mph) as the typhoon made landfall in northern Vietnam early Monday after crossing the South China Sea, according to the Hong Kong meteorological observatory. Authorities there evacuated hundreds of thousands of people, but there were no reports of significant damage or injuries.
It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it entered southern China later Monday, but weather officials forecast torrential rain over the coming 24 hours across southern China. Guangxi officials advised fishermen to stay onshore.
Reports were trickling in, indicating deaths elsewhere besides Leyte Island.
On Samar Island, Leo Dacaynos of the provincial disaster office said 300 people were confirmed dead in one town and another 2,000 were missing, with some towns yet to be reached by rescuers. He pleaded for food and water, adding that power was out and there was no cellphone signal, making communication possible only by radio.
Reports from other affected islands indicated dozens, perhaps hundreds more deaths.
With communications still knocked out in many areas, it was unclear how authorities were arriving at their estimates of the number of people killed, and it will be days before the full extent of the storm is known.
With no aid reaching, people were seeing helping themselves to food and supplies from unattended shops and stores.
President Benigno Aquino III said he was considering declaring a state of emergency or martial law in Tacloban. A state of emergency usually includes curfews, price and food supply controls, military or police checkpoints and increased security patrols.
Challenged to respond to a disaster of such magnitude, the Philippine government also accepted help from abroad.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the Pacific Command to deploy ships and aircraft to support search-and-rescue operations and fly in emergency supplies.
Pope Francis led tens of thousands of people at the Vatican in prayer for the victims. The Philippines has the largest number of Catholics in Asia, and Filipinos are one of Rome's biggest immigrant communities.
The Philippines, an archipelago nation of more than 7,000 islands, is annually buffeted by tropical storms and typhoons, which are called hurricanes and cyclones elsewhere. The nation is in the northwestern Pacific, right in the path of the world's No. 1 typhoon generator, according to meteorologists. The archipelago's exposed eastern seaboard often bears the brunt.
Even by the standards of the Philippines, however, Haiyan is a catastrophe of epic proportions and has shocked the impoverished and densely populated nation of 96 million people. Its winds were among the strongest ever recorded, and it appears to have killed more people than the previous deadliest Philippine storm, Thelma, in which about 5,100 people died in the central Philippines in 1991.
The country's deadliest disaster on record was the 1976 magnitude-7.9 earthquake that triggered a tsunami in the Moro Gulf in the southern Philippines, killing 5,791 people.
Tacloban, in the east-central Philippines, is near the Red Beach on Leyte Island where U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur waded ashore in 1944 during World War II and fulfilled his famous pledge: "I shall return."
It was the first city liberated from the Japanese by U.S. and Filipino forces and served as the Philippines' temporary capital for several months. It is also the hometown of former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos, whose nephew, Alfred Romualdez, is the city's mayor.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Minh Tran in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.