Fear, chaos reign in devastated region

Reuters, TACLOBAN, Philippines

Thu, Nov 14, 2013 - Page 1

Desperation gripped Philippine islands devastated by Typhoon Haiyan as looting turned deadly yesterday and survivors panicked over shortages of food, water and medicine, some digging up underground water pipes and smashing them open.

Five days after one of the strongest storms ever recorded slammed into cities and towns in the central Philippines, anger and frustration boiled over yesterday as essential supplies dwindled. Some survivors scrawled signs reading “Help us.”

Controversy also emerged over the death toll. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said local officials had overstated the loss of life, saying it was closer to 2,000 or 2,500 than the 10,000 previously estimated. However, his comments drew skepticism from some aid workers.

Some areas appeared to teeter near anarchy amid widespread looting of shops and warehouses for food, water and supplies.

There were reports of gunfire between security forces and armed men near a mass grave in worst-hit Tacloban in Leyte province, but Tacloban city administrator Tecson John Lim denied the clash based on information he had received from the army.

Eight people were crushed to death when looters raided rice stockpiles in a government warehouse in the town of Alangalang, causing a wall to collapse, local authorities said.

Other looters still managed to cart away 33,000 bags of rice weighing 50kg each, said Orlan Calayag, administrator of the state-run grain agency National Food Authority.

Warehouses owned by food and drinks company Universal Robina Corp and drug company United Laboratories were ransacked in the storm-hit town of Palo in Leyte, along with a rice mill in Jaro, said Alfred Li, head of the Leyte Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Lim said 90 percent of the coastal city of 220,000 people had been destroyed, 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 said.

Some survivors in Tacloban dug up water pipes in their desperate need for water.

“We don’t know if it’s safe. We need to boil it, but at least we have something,” Christopher Dorano, 38, said. “There have been a lot of people who have died here.”

The government has been overwhelmed by the force of the typhoon. Aquino, who has been on the defensive over his handling of the disaster, said the government was still gathering information from various storm-struck areas and the death toll may rise.

“Ten thousand, I think, is too much,” Aquino told CNN in an interview. “There was emotional drama involved with that particular estimate.”

Official confirmed deaths stood at 2,275 yesterday, with only 84 missing, a figure aid workers consider off the mark.