Typhoon Haiyan: Grief and Hunger Dominate Amid Survival Struggle

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CEBU, Philippines (CNN) — In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, nights are often the hardest.


Tacloban “is like something fresh out of a movie. It’s like survival of the fittest,” one survivor said. (Credit: Adam Prattler/CNN iReport)

It’s dark. It’s wet. It can be scary. There’s little to do and, for many, even less to eat.

“We don’t have homes. We miss our homes, and we have nothing to eat,” one storm victim taking shelter in a church told CNN, looking into the camera, tearfully appealing to viewers around the world: “We really need help now.”

That help is coming, on military and civilian transports, by air and by sea. But much of it is piling up at airports.

While relief organizations say they have been able to deliver limited aid to some victims, many CNN crews report seeing little sign of any organized relief effort in the hardest-hit areas.

Blame Haiyan and its unprecedented strength and scope, said UNICEF spokesman Christopher De Bono.

“I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault. I think it’s the geography and the devastation,” he said.

Still, the desperation is increasing, and becoming more serious.

Eight people died Tuesday in a stampede when hungry storm victims mobbed a government warehouse in Leyte province, Philippines National Food Authority Administrator Orlan Calayag said Wednesday. Police and security stood by as people stormed the building and took some 100,000 sacks of rice, he said.

When it struck Friday, Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda, flattened entire towns, layered debris over roads and knocked airports out of commission.

The storm destroyed at least 80,000 homes, according to the latest Philippine government accounting. Although estimates of the number left homeless vary, the Philippine government puts the number at more than 582,000.

United Nations officials have warned of increasing desperation and lawlessness, They said the situation is especially dangerous for women and children.

Some areas haven’t even been reached yet, according to Valerie Amos, the U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief.

There were, however, some successes. The road between the capital, Manila, and hard-hit Tacloban opened Tuesday, holding out the promise that aid will begin to flow more quickly. The U.S. Agency for International Development said it expected to deliver its first shipment of relief supplies to victims on Wednesday.

The UN’s World Food Programme began distributing food in Tacloban, handing out rice to 3,000 people on Wednesday, the agency said.

But more than 2 million people need food, according to the Philippine government, and even Amos acknowledged the pace of relief has been lacking.

“This is a major operation that we have to mount,” she said Wednesday. “We’re getting there. But in my view it’s far too slow. ”

On Tuesday, President Benigno Aquino III defended relief efforts, saying that in addition to all of the challenges of blocked roads and downed power and communication lines, local governments were overwhelmed — forcing the federal government to step in and perform both its own role and those of local officials.

Most of all, he said, “nobody imagined the magnitude that this super typhoon brought on us.”

Decomposing bodies

Throughout the devastation, bodies of victims lie buried in the debris or out in the open.

The government hasn’t counted them all yet, but initial fears that 10,000 may have died have subsided.

The official death toll Wednesday morning stood at 2,275. Aquino told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday that he expected the final number would likely be around 2,000 to 2,500.

While they are gruesome reminders of the human cost of the disaster, the dead are not a major public health threat, said CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

“From a pure health threat standpoint, there are bigger threats,” he said. People need clean food and water.

The slowness of delivery of food and basic medical aid is the biggest threat to lives, Gupta said.

“There are people there right now who can be saved. And it could be as simple as antibiotics that cost a penny.”

The World Health Organization agrees with Gupta that the decomposing bodies are a secondary concern.

“From a public health point of view, dead bodies do not cause infectious disease outbreaks,” said spokeswoman Julie Hall.

Clean food and water take priority, as well as shelter from the elements.

Unable to move on

But the psychological toll is heavy.

“I’ve seen dead people on the streets and the sidewalks,” said 9-year-old storm survivor Rastin Teves. “It made me feel scared.”

It is important psychologically to collect the bodies, treat them with respect and bury them in locations where relatives can find the graves, Hall said.

Survivors need to know where they are, to be able to grieve, move on and take care of themselves, she said.

In Tacloban, survivor Juan Martinez can’t do that yet.

He sits in a makeshift shack where his home once stood. Nearby, the bodies of his wife and two children are covered by sacks.

“I really want someone to collect their bodies, so I know where they are taken,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “I want to know where they are taken.”

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh reported from Tacloban, Anna Coren reported from Cebu and Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Paula Hancocks and Andrew Stevens contributed from Tacloban. CNN’s Ben Brumfield, Chelsea J. Carter and Larry Register contributed from Atlanta.