Aid effort kicks into gear as grisly work of collecting bodies expands

By Rob Crilly, Tom Phillips in Tacloban

Helicopters are now able to deliver supplies as the clean-up begins

A Filipino soldier hands out bread to survivors in Maraboth. Photo / AP
A Filipino soldier hands out bread to survivors in Maraboth. Photo / AP

The skies above the city worst affected by Typhoon Haiyan were filled with the roar of engines yesterday as American aircraft began delivering much-needed aid, and the international effort to help the Philippines picked up pace.

Helicopters buzzed back and forth between Tacloban and the USS George Washington's carrier group, which had arrived offshore, delivering crates of food slung beneath their bellies.

One week after the typhoon ripped through this part of the Philippines, the long-awaited clean-up finally seemed to be under way.

As each helicopter load arrived at the city airport, scores of Marines were on hand to direct a fleet of four Osprey aircraft, which collected the aid for delivery to some of the more remote parts of the island.

At the same time teams of workers began to deploy across the city of Tacloban, bulldozing damaged houses, collecting bodies and ferrying aid to outlying villages.

Brigadier General Paul Kennedy, the commander of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Okinawa which is spearheading the US effort, said the international response had stepped up a gear. Yesterday, US forces reached two dozen small villages, he said, and "life-support supplies" were dropped at 16 while aid convoys were converging on Tacloban by ferry and road.

"The priority is providing immediate life support aid: food, water, shelter, medical supplies, There are entire convoys of trucks converging on Tacloban from Manila, from Cebu, it is building up. As cellphones are coming up people are reporting in what their needs are."

Those needs remained undeniably huge. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been flattened and it will take months or years to rebuild them. The electricity is off, telephone lines are down and the hospitals are running out of medicine. Roads remain blocked by fallen trees, the shops are empty, looted of food.

Water is scarce or polluted - and no one can find petrol. On top of all that, medical workers now fear a wave of disease could spread. It was difficult to know where to begin and for almost a week, little had been done. At least yesterday some of the corpses that have lain at the side of the road for days - blackening and swelling as the humid heat accelerated their decay - were finally being slipped into body bags.

The grisly task of retrieving them fell to Police Superintendent Alex Uy and his team. "The most difficult thing is the degree of decay," he said, pausing for breath beside the stinking main road. "They are in an advanced stage of decomposition so the smell is terrible and handling the bodies is not easy."

City officials originally estimated that 10,000 people had died in Tacloban and the surrounding island of coastal communities and farming villages. So far the closest thing to an official tally, at the city's main hospital, puts the dead at about 2300 - which leaves a lot of work for Superintendent Uy and the other recovery teams.

He said it would take a month to finish gathering the bodies as his men struggled to unearth victims buried beneath mounds of debris - mangled corrugated iron roofs, felled palm trees and anything else carried by the storm surge.

"I can't be certain. There are many, many more under the debris. Some are buried very deep. There are places my men cannot reach."

One by one bodies were being retrieved along the main road through Tacloban and deposited on the verge. Ten lay in an evenly spaced row. A few hundred metres further on there were 15 more, then five, then seven, then 10, then 20 more. Three had been left alone, before a final cluster of four, not far from where a family had laid out a sack of storm-damaged rice to dry in the sun.

Elsewhere, work teams fanned out through the city. Mechanical diggers began the job of demolishing half-destroyed homes or sawing trees into logs to be transported away.

The aid effort has been criticised both at home and abroad. So far much of the charity on offer had been coming from relatives and friends. Neighbours have taken in neighbours and extended families have shared meagre supplies of rice and tinned food as aid agencies have struggled to cope with the country's shattered infrastructure.

The Government has been forced repeatedly to defend its response with almost 600,000 people homeless and 20,000 still missing. Food and water are running dangerously low in many regions, while hospitals in the worst-hit areas are out of many medicines.

But the surge in activity yesterday at Tacloban airport, the hub for humanitarian efforts in the region, brought a glimmering of hope as donors stepped up their efforts. Australian and Malaysian cargo planes arrived to add their muscle to the growing American presence, in the shape of the USS Washington, two cruisers and a destroyer.

The US will soon double the number of MV-22 Ospreys - part helicopter, part aeroplane - to eight, joining a team of Marines who are equipped with amphibious vehicles and 12 cargo planes in delivering food, water and other essentials.

For local officials, however, there is a long way to go. Jerry Sambo Jaokasin, Tacloban's vice-mayor, said international help was urgently needed and he wondered what sort of Christmas his residents faced.

"We have citizens but we don't have a city any more and it will take years for us to rebuild the city unless all of you help us."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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