By Stuart Grudgings and Andrew R.C. Marshall
TACLOBAN, Philippines (Reuters) – Philippine President Benigno Aquino was under growing pressure on Thursday to speed up the distribution of food, water and medicine to desperate survivors of a powerful typhoon and to get paralyzed local governments functioning.
Widespread looting of rice stocks and other supplies broke out across the central Philippines on Wednesday despite the deployment of solders to maintain law and order.
While international relief efforts have picked up, many petrol station owners whose businesses were spared have refused to reopen, leaving little fuel for trucks needed to move supplies and medical teams around the devastated areas nearly a week after Typhoon Haiyan struck.
Mayor Alfred Romualdez said worst-hit Tacloban city lacked manpower and vehicles to deliver supplies and to clear bodies off the streets. “We’re on the seventh day and there are still bodies on the road,” he told Reuters.
“It’s scary,” Romualdez said. “There is a request from a community to come and collect bodies, they say it’s five or 10. When we get there it’s 40.” He said bodies were being found frequently in different areas of the city.
He expressed disappointment with the overall relief response. “The choice is to use the same truck either to distribute food or collect bodies.”
A U.S. defense official said the USS George Washington aircraft carrier was due to arrive in the Philippines on Thursday evening, along with other ships.
The carrier has 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft on board and will make a significant difference to relief efforts following one of the strongest storms on record. There are already more than 300 U.S. soldiers on the ground.
Japan was also planning to send up to 1,000 troops as well as naval vessels and aircraft, in what could be Tokyo’s biggest postwar military deployment.
AQUINO IN SPOTLIGHT
Aquino has been on the defensive over his government’s preparations ahead of Typhoon Haiyan given dire warnings of the storm’s projected strength and now the pace of relief efforts.
He has said the death toll might have been higher had it not been for the evacuation of people and the readying of relief supplies.
The Philippines formally asked Washington for help on Saturday, one day after the storm slammed into cities and towns in the central Philippines, the U.S. State Department said.
Aquino has also triggered questions over the loss of life, citing a much lower death toll than the 10,000 estimated by local officials. Official confirmed deaths stood at 2,357 on Thursday, a figure aid workers expect to rise.
The preliminary number of missing as of Wednesday, according to the Red Cross, was 22,000. It has cautioned that number could include people who have since been located.
More the 544,600 people have been displaced by the storm and nearly 12 percent of the population directly affected, the United Nations said.
Anger and frustration has been boiling over as essential supplies fail to reach many of those in need. Food and other goods have stacked up at the airport in Tacloban, for example.
Some areas have appeared to teeter near anarchy amid widespread looting of shops and warehouses for food and water.
Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) described a bleak situation in Guiuan, home to 45,000 people.
“People are living out in the open … The needs are immense and there are a lot of surrounding villages that are not yet covered by any aid organizations,” Alexis Moens, MSF’s assessment team leader, said in a statement.
LOOTING IS “SELF-PRESERVATION”
Tacloban city administrator Tecson John Lim said 90 percent of the coastal city of 220,000 people had been destroyed by the typhoon and the wall of seawater it shoved ashore, with only 20 percent of residents receiving aid. Houses were now being looted because warehouses were empty, he said.
“The looting is not criminality. It is self-preservation,” Lim told Reuters.
There are not enough flights from Tacloban airport to cope with the exodus from the stricken city.
As darkness fell on Wednesday, Philippine Special Forces held back hundreds of people, many of whom had walked for hours to reach the airport and then waited for days with little or no food or water.
When asked how she and her four children endured three days of waiting in searing heat and torrential downpours, Marivic Badilla, 41, held up a small battered umbrella. “We have been sheltering under this,” she said, tears streaming down her face.
Many people complained that military families were given priority to board the C-130 cargo planes.
“If you have a friend or relative in the military, you get priority,” said Violeta Duzar, 57, who had waited at the airport since Sunday with eight family members, including children.
None of the aid passing through the airport had been distributed to the needy crowd at its gates.
The overall financial cost of the destruction was hard to assess. Initial estimates varied widely, with a report from German-based CEDIM Forensic Disaster Analysis putting the total at $ 8 billion to $ 19 billion.
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco in Manila and Phil Stewart in Washington. Writing by Jason Szep. Editing by Dean Yates)
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