Desperation gripped Philippine islands devastated by Typhoon Haiyan as looting turned deadly and survivors panicked over shortages of food, water and medicine, some digging up underground water pipes and smashing them open.
After one of the strongest storms ever recorded slammed into cities and towns in the central Philippines, anger and frustration boiled over as essential supplies dwindled. Some survivors scrawled signs reading “Help us”.
Controversy also emerged over the death toll. President Benigno Aquino 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. His comments, however, drew scepticism 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 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 (110lb) 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.
Tacloban city administrator Tecson John Lim said 90% of the coastal city of 220,000 people had been destroyed, with only 20% 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,” said Christopher Dorano, 38.
“There have been a lot of people who have died here,” he said.
Resident Rachel Garduce said the aid — 3kg (6lb) of rice and 1 litre of water per household a day — was not enough in her ravaged Tacloban neighbourhood. Her aunt in Manila, 580km to the north, was travelling by road and ferry to bring supplies.
“We are hoping she won’t get hijacked,” she said.
Secretary Mar Roxas denied law and order were breaking down. “It is wrong to say there is lawlessness in the city,” he told reporters.
The government has been overwhelmed by the force of the typhoon, which destroyed large swathes of Leyte province where local officials have said they feared 10,000 people died, many drowning in a tsunami-like surge of seawater.
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. Official confirmed deaths stood at 2,275, with only 84 missing, a figure aid workers consider off the mark.
“At this time it is definitely not 10,000,” Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras told a news conference.
“There has been a body count based on the dead lying in the streets but we can’t be accurate because there is still, some people say, there are people buried in certain areas.”
Some aid workers cast doubt over Aquino’s estimate. “Probably it will be higher because numbers are just coming in. Many of the areas we cannot access,” said Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross.
The preliminary number of missing, according to the Red Cross, is 22,000. Pang cautioned that figure could include people who have since been located.
Google, which has set up websites to help people share and look for information about missing persons during catastrophes, lists some 65,500 people as missing. The Person Finder website allows anyone to list a person missing and to search for names.
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