By Andrew R.C. Marshall and Stuart Grudgings
TACLOBAN, Philippines (Reuters) – Desperation gripped Philippine islands devastated by Typhoon Haiyan as looting turned deadly on Wednesday and survivors panicked over delays in supplies of food, water and medicine, some digging up underground water pipes and smashing them open.
Five days after one of the strongest storms ever recorded slammed into cities and towns in the central Philippines, anger and frustration boiled over on Wednesday as essential supplies dwindled. Some survivors scrawled signs reading “Help us”.
Controversy also emerged over the death toll. President Benigno Aquino said local officials had overstated the loss of life, saying it was closer to 2,000 or 2,500 than the 10,000 previously estimated. His comments, however, drew skepticism from some aid workers.
Some areas appeared to teeter near anarchy. ANC Television said security forces exchanged fire with armed men amid widespread looting of shops and warehouses for food, water and other supplies in the village of Abucay, part of worst-hit Tacloban in Leyte province.
Military officials were unable to immediately confirm the fighting.
Eight people were crushed to death when looters raided rice stockpiles in a government warehouse in the town of Alangalang, causing a wall to collapse, local authorities said.
Other looters still managed to cart away 33,000 bags of rice weighing 50 kg (110 lb) each, said Orlan Calayag, administrator of the state-run grain agency National Food Authority.
Warehouses owned by food and drinks company Universal Robina Corp and drug company United Laboratories were ransacked in the storm-hit town of Palo in Leyte, along with a rice mill in Jaro, said Alfred Li, head of the Leyte Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Tacloban city administrator Tecson John Lim said 90 percent of the coastal city of 220,000 people had been destroyed, with only 20 percent of residents receiving aid. Houses were now being looted because warehouses were empty, he said.
“The looting is not criminality. It is self-preservation,” Lim told Reuters.
Some survivors in Tacloban dug up water pipes in a desperate bid for water.
“We sourced our water from an underground pipe that we have smashed. We don’t know if it’s safe. We need to boil it. But at least we have something,” said Christopher Dorano, 38.
“There have been a lot of people who have died here.”
Resident Rachel Garduce said the aid – 3 kg (6 lb) of rice and 1 liter (34 ounces) of water per household a day – was not enough in her ravaged Tacloban neighborhood. Her aunt in Manila, 580 km (360 miles) to the north, was travelling by road and ferry to bring supplies. “We are hoping she won’t get hijacked,” she said.
THOUSANDS REPORTED MISSING
The government has been overwhelmed by the force of the typhoon, which decimated large swathes of Leyte province where local officials have said they feared 10,000 people died, many drowning in a tsunami-like surge of seawater.
Aquino, who has been on the defensive over his handling of the disaster, said the government was still gathering information from various storm-struck areas and the death toll may rise. “Ten thousand, I think, is too much,” Aquino told CNN in an interview. “There was emotional drama involved with that particular estimate.
“We’re hoping to be able to contact something like 29 municipalities left wherein we still have to establish their numbers, especially for the missing, but so far 2,000, about 2,500, is the number we are working on as far as deaths are concerned,” he said.
Officials said Aquino referred to estimated deaths. Official confirmed deaths stood at 2,275 on Wednesday, with only 84 missing, a figure aid workers consider widely off the mark.
“At this time it is definitely not 10,000,” Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras told a news conference. “There has been a body count based on the dead lying in the streets but we can’t be accurate because there is still, some people say, there are people buried in certain areas.”
Some aid workers cast doubt over Aquino’s estimate.
“Probably it will be higher because numbers are just coming in. Many of the areas we cannot access,” Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross, told Reuters.
The preliminary number of missing, according to the Red Cross, is 22,000. Pang cautioned that figure could include people who have since been located.
Google, which has set up websites to help people share and look for information about missing persons during catastrophes, currently lists some 65,500 people as missing from the typhoon. The Person Finder website allows anyone to list a person missing and to search the database for names.
But Google staff warned against reading too much into the data, pointing out that a similar website set up after the Japanese tsunami in 2011 listed more than 600,000 names, far higher than the final death toll of nearly 20,000.
“NO ONE IS HELPING US”
Medical facilities were stretched. Maricel Cruz sat on a bench in a Tacloban hospital, cradling her decomposing 5-month-old baby wrapped in a black jacket. The infant was sick before the typhoon. After the storm, she sought medicine, but there was none. Her baby, she said, convulsed and died.
“No one is helping us,” she said on ABS-CBN television.
More the 670,000 people have been displaced by the storm and nearly 12 percent of the population directly affected, the United Nations said.
The World Health Organisation said teams from Belgium, Japan, Israel and Norway had arrived in the Philippines to set up field hospitals. It said other countries were expected to provide medical teams.
More than 250 U.S. forces were on the ground too, and a senior Marine official told Pentagon reporters he expected that number to grow every day.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington will arrive later this week, carrying about 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft. It has been joined by four other U.S. Navy ships.
The United States, a close ally and former colonial ruler of the Philippines, has also provided eight C-130 cargo planes for delivering aid, said Cabinet Secretary Almendras.
Rescuers have reached some previously cut off regions, such as Guiuan, a wind-swept city of 40,000 people that was spared the storm surge that washed over Tacloban. Local officials say 85 people were killed in Guiuan, with 24 missing.
The typhoon also leveled Basey, a seaside town in Samar province about 10 km (6 miles) across a bay from Tacloban. Local officials say 80 people were killed there.
Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said the economic damage in the coconut- and rice-growing region would likely shave 1 percentage point off of economic growth in 2014.
The overall financial cost of the destruction was harder to assess. Initial estimates varied widely, with a report from German-based CEDIM Forensic Disaster Analysis putting the total at $8 billion to $19 billion.