MANILA -- Each story has been more heartbreaking than the last.
A 44-year-old high school teacher from the destroyed provincial capital of Tacloban City recounts how she abandoned her dying daughter, stabbed by splinters of their house, which was razed by Friday’s killer Typhoon Haiyan.
"'Ma, just let go. Save yourself,'" Bernadette Tenegra was quoted as saying by the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “I was holding her, and I kept telling her to hang on, that I was going to bring her up. But she just gave up."
Then there was Rogelio Mingig, 48, who instructed his wife to remain at home with their 12-year-old son and year-old daughter because he thought it would be safer. But they were trapped by rising flood waters.
"We found her embracing the children in one arm and grabbing on to the ceiling with the other," he told the newspaper.
In a televised address on Monday night local time, President Benigno Aquino III declared a "state of national calamity," a declaration designed to emphasize the extent of the disaster and to free up additional emergency funds.
In a country with a long history of tragedy, including tsunamis and volcano eruptions, Haiyan -- called Yolanda by Filipinos -- could rank as the worst-ever natural disaster.
With many coastal areas still cut off from communications and transport three days after the typhoon, the full extent of the devastation is only gradually revealing itself. But the official death toll, standing at 1,774 as of Monday night, was expected to rise to 10,000 or more, according to Filipino officials and relief workers who have surveyed the damage from the air.
"It has turned a lush tropic island into a waste land right now,’’ said Joe Curry, Philippines representative for Catholic Relief Services, in an interview Monday of the island of Leyte. "We’ve had so many typhoons before, but nothing compared to how intense and devastating this was."
Tacloban, a city of 220,000 that is the capital of Leyte province, was almost entirely destroyed.
The city lies along the straits separating two islands and was hit first by the typhoon sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean to the east and later by waves coming in from the west. Most of the deaths were caused by surges of seawater up to 13 feet high that witnesses described as more like a tsunami than a typhoon.
"We have at least 20 to 26 typhoons a year, especially this time of the year. The storm surge in Tacloban, which is surrounded by water, that was the one thing we were not able to anticipate ... We never thought the effect would be that big,’’ said Maj. Gen. Raul Gabriel L. Dimatatac, vice commander of the Philippine Air Force.
Days before the typhoon, there had been extensive warnings about its ferocity. Hundreds of thousands of people evacuated or reinforced their own homes in preparation. But even emergency shelters in schools and concrete government buildings suffered extensive damage from the winds and flood waters.
The mayor of Tacloban, Alfred Romualdez, a nephew of former first lady Imelda Marcos, had to be rescued from his roof.
Residents described their city as in a state of “anarchy,” with no government or police. There were widespread reports of looting, not only of food and drinking water, but televisions and washing machines.
"Under the circumstances, I would say looting for food and water is justifiable. But if you are taking a huge TV on your Pajero, that’s different," complained Richard Bilisario, an Air Force official, to the Inquirer News.
So far, Aquino has resisted calls to place Tacloban and other cities with extensive looting under martial law. But the president did order hundreds of additional law enforcement officials to the area.
"There are local governments that, due to the strength of the storm, broke down because their personnel and officials also became victims," Aquino said in his address Monday night.
Relief efforts so far are concentrated in Tacloban, which has the largest airport in the region. Some 80% of buildings were reportedly destroyed. C-130 cargo planes are making regular flights now, but have yet to reach the more far-flung disaster areas.
Relief officials say the needs include not just food and water, but shelter.
"Imagine rural areas where people live in small villages, where everything is flattened, and there is debris everywhere,’’ said Curry, of Catholic Relief Services. "People just need something over their heads to give them shade and give them a place to sleep at night. Right now, they probably don't have that."
De Leon reported from Manila and Demick from Beijing.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times