MANILA – The death toll from one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall could top 1,200, the Red Cross said Saturday after fierce winds and flooding from Typhoon Haiyan slammed the Philippines.
Early reports suggest 1,000 people have died in the coastal city of Tacloban and at least 200 more in the Samar province, according to Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross.
Pang said the numbers came from preliminary reports by Red Cross teams on the ground.
Hundreds of homes were flattened and almost 800,000 people were evacuated to emergency shelters as Haiyan triggered mudslides, flash flooding and a storm surge with waves of up to 30 feet when it came ashore on Friday. Terrified survivors in Tacloban, a city of about 220,000 in the central Philippines, spoke Saturday of storm surge waves as high as trees and the city's airport looked like a muddy wasteland of debris, with crumpled tin roofs and upturned cars. The airport tower's glass windows were shattered, and air force helicopters were busy flying in and out at the start of relief operations.
So far, government officials have confirmed just 138 deaths. At least 118 of those were on hardest-hit Leyte Island, where Tacloban is located, national disaster agency spokesman Maj. Reynaldo Balido told The Associated Press.
On Friday, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg tweeted a picture of the Typhoon from the International jSpace Station.
Typhoon Haiyan. November 9. pic.twitter.com/3Km8rLiC05— Karen L. Nyberg (@AstroKarenN) November 9, 2013
But after arriving in Tacloban on Saturday, Interior Secretary Max Roxas said it was too early to know how many people had died.
"The rescue operation is ongoing, we expect a very high number of fatalities as well as injured," he told the Associated Press. "All systems, all vestiges of modern living — communications, power, water — all are down. Media is down, so there is no way to communicate with the people in a mass sort of way."
U.S. Marine Col. Mike Wylie, who surveyed the damage in Tacloban prior to possible American assistance, told the AP that the area suffered "significant structural damage and trees blown over.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that America "stands ready to help."
The weather system nearly 200-mph winds as it rampaged through the Philippines on Friday. It was downgraded overnight from a "super typhoon," equivalent to a category 4 or 5 hurricane, to a typhoon.
Along the way, it cut off many of the country's lines of communication, making it hard to establish the extent of its damage.
Because the Philippines is made up of more than 7,000 islands — more than 2,000 of them inhabited, with their own local authorities and infrastructures — it typically takes two to three days for full reports to reach rescue agencies.
The Weather Channel's Jim Edds, in Tacloban, said there was a desperate need for drinking water for survivors. "We need it now, we needed it 12 hours ago,"he said in a brief phone call via satellite phone
Edds added that there was a massive wall of water when the storm hit, and described the current situation as chaotic. "Relief is needed here. Now."