The three dump trucks were painted bright orange, blue and yellow, but their grisly cargo was anything but jolly: dozens of bloated, blackened and battered bodies piled high.
In the nearby public cemetery, victims of Tuesday’s flash floods were heaped naked in the mud, awaiting burial in mass graves. Numbed survivors, holding their noses from the stench of death, searched for loved ones. Others wept as they dug shallow graves for bodies shrouded only in banana leaves or mats.
“There are no coffins. There’s nothing,” said Poloi Cashiano, 30, whose wife and eldest son drowned. His three other children are missing, presumably washed out to a churning brown sea where sharks have been sighted feeding on corpses.
Floodwaters had mostly receded, but this stricken port on Leyte Island remained in a state of shock Thursday from the suddenness of the calamity and the extent of the carnage. About 1,200 bodies have been buried, officials said, but estimates of the death toll from Tropical Storm Thelma ranged from 2,300 to 3,400.
“In terms of human casualties, this is the worst disaster we’ve had in many years,” said Renato De Villa, the Philippine defense secretary and head of the government’s disaster relief efforts.
Ormoc was the worst hit. Survivors said a night of torrential rain suddenly turned deadly at midmorning Tuesday when a roaring wall of water, mud and debris rushed down the Anilao River, which courses through town. Bridges were swept away, cars and trucks tumbled like toys and hundreds of shanties along the riverbank were instantly flooded or washed away in the 10-foot surge. High tide worsened the deluge.
“There was no warning,” said Jose Larrazabal, a 25-year-old office worker. “There was just a little rumbling sound. Then water began to go up. Within five minutes it was up to my neck.”
He survived by climbing a coconut tree. Other families were drowned in their homes, crushed under debris or swept into Ormoc Bay. Drivers died in their cars, or were caught when the bridges collapsed.
Several decomposing bodies still bobbed near the rubble-strewn seafront, and five washed ashore in front of the Don Felipe Hotel, the city’s largest. Emilio Osmena, governor of neighboring Cebu province, said that from his helicopter, he saw sharks feeding on bodies.
“There are a lot of bodies still floating,” said Ormoc’s dazed-looking mayor, Victoria L. Locsin. “We’ve asked for a navy boat to fish them out.”
Leyte Gov. Leopoldo Pepilla blamed the flood on illegal logging that has stripped water-holding forest cover from the hills and low mountains that rise sharply in the distance. As in most of the Philippines, the mountains are deeply scarred with steeply eroded gullies and ravines from the ravages of uncontrolled logging, often by corrupt military and local warlords.
“This calamity is practically 100% because of illegal logging,” Gov. Pepilla said. “Before, Leyte was a beautiful place. Now it’s been denuded of its forests. In effect, it’s a man-made disaster abetted by nature.”
Roiling gray clouds shrouded the city, and a fierce afternoon downpour turned streets into muddy rivers and rivers into swollen torrents once again.
Corpses covered by straw mats lay on pallets in an open-air morgue at the health center. Others overflowed at funeral homes. Stretcher-bearers carried a body from a soggy pile of debris. Still another man’s naked corpse fell off a truck and lay sprawled in the mile-long muddy road to the cemetery.
Residents were told to identify and claim the dead by noon Thursday or they would be buried in mass graves to avoid epidemics. Several groups of men carried coffins built from doors, clapboard and lumber taken from buildings turned to rubble.
Trees lay uprooted, thatched huts lay in ruins, and some of the estimated 60,000 people made homeless by the storm crowded a school.
“The people are very confused,” said Father Ben Ebcas, shortly after he blessed 130 bodies in a mass grave. “They are hungry. They haven’t slept. They are walking on the streets as if there are no cars coming. They’re in shock.”
So is the national government. The storm’s wrath is the fourth major disaster to hit this impoverished nation since a devastating earthquake rocked central Luzon in July, 1990, killing 1,700 people. It was followed four months later by a typhoon that killed 335 people, and then the volcanic eruption in June of Mt. Pinatubo, one of the largest eruptions of the century.
Relief efforts have begun to reach Ormoc, which was left with no water, power or phones. Two military cargo planes ferried canned food and water to the provincial capital of Tacloban, where helicopters shuttled it in. Other supplies were en route on a Philippine navy ship and three civilian ships, officials said.
In the city itself, small sacks of rice were handed out from a truck to a long line of people who seemed dazed by the disaster around them.
“What we need now is bags for the dead,” said one man. “And prayers for the living.”