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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mayor of Haiyan-ravaged Tacloban urges residents to flee -- no water, food, gasoline

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
A woman sat amid debris in Tacloban on Wednesday, where conditions have not improved for residents suffering from lack of food and water.

by Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, November 13, 2013

TACLOBAN, the Philippines — The mayor of this typhoon-ravaged city urged residents on Wednesday afternoon to flee to other cities and find shelter there with relatives if they could, saying that the local authorities were struggling to provide enough food and water and faced difficulties in maintaining law and order.

The appeal from Mayor Alfred S. Romualdez came as the first attempt in Tacloban to conduct a mass burial ended in failure. A police convoy of trucks carrying more than 200 rotting corpses turned back after the officers heard gunshots as they approached the city limits.
Covered with black plastic tarpaulin, the bodies were returned to a gathering place at the foot of the hill topped by City Hall, where they released a powerful odor.
Mr. Romualdez said the city desperately needed trucks and drivers to distribute relief shipments of food that are piling up at the airport, as well as more trucks, heavy equipment and personnel to pull decaying corpses out of the unending mounds of debris and collapsed houses that stretch across this city.
“I have to decide at every meeting which is more important, relief goods or picking up cadavers,” he said.
Mr. Romualdez denied persistent rumors of gunfights among the increasingly hungry and thirsty population, saying that business owners and others were firing only warning shots. “That’s why sometimes you hear gunshots, but it is to ward off looting,” he said.
He did not offer any municipal assistance to those seeking to leave the city, noting that the city had virtually no working vehicles. The local fleet of light buses and group taxis in Tacloban, a city of 220,000 before the typhoon, was destroyed by the storm surge. The United States and the Philippines have been offering some seats on planes leaving after dropping off relief supplies.
Jerry Sambo Yaokasin, the second-ranking official in the municipal government, said in an interview that Philippine soldiers and police officers may be stretched too thin to provide security in Tacloban even as they try to reach other coastal communities to assess damage. He suggested that foreign forces may be needed, including to provide security for gas stations to reopen.
“If the United States will come in, if it will be allowed to come, or if the United Nations can come in, it will really help us secure the city,” he said.
The Philippines was a Spanish possession and then an American possession one, and any suggestion that it needs to rely on foreign forces can be an emotional issue here. Mr. Romualdez disagreed with Mr. Yaokasin on the need for security forces from outside the Philippines. “Right now, that won’t be necessary,” he said.
The Philippines has one of the world’s most heavily armed civilian populations, few effective gun control regulations and a tradition of violence being used in personal disputes, legacies of being an American possession before World War II.
Service station owners are refusing to start pumping fuel from their underground storage tanks for fear that they will be robbed by desperate people, Mr. Yaokasin and Mr. Romualdez said. The result has been the virtually complete disappearance of gasoline and diesel at any price, immobilizing aid vehicles and private cars alike. Scavengers have already combed over the large numbers of vehicles crushed, overturned or otherwise damaged during the typhoon, siphoning fuel from them.
Ample gasoline and diesel reserves remain in the city, but officials must find a way to provide security for their distribution, Mr. Yaokasin said. He added that the shortage of vehicles and fuel had become so acute that he no longer had a car himself and had to hitch rides to move around the city.
Valerie Amos, the top United Nations relief official, held a public meeting with Mr. Romualdez at a building next to City Hall and promised international assistance. But she said the United Nations desperately needed service stations to open to operate trucks here.
“We have to have fuel, so we have to have some kind of refueling center,” she said.
Mr. Romualdez told her that the city could not easily cope with the influx of aid workers, as practically no vehicles or fuel is available to bring them in from the airport, while food and drinking water are running out. “I’m asking those who come here, ‘Please be self-sufficient, because there’s nothing,’ ” he said.
Typhoon Haiyan did not just destroy the electricity grid here. The storm surge, when the sea level rose by as much as 13 feet in minutes, inundated and disabled most of the generators in the city, Mr. Yaokasin said, and the lack of fuel has limited operations for the ones that are left.
Many grocery store owners died during the storm, disabling much of the capacity of the private sector to bring in food. Because grocery stores have been heavily looted and continue to be looted, surviving store owners are refusing to bring in new inventory and reopen their stores, Mr. Yaokasin said.
“The police visibility has to be there to the point that businesses feel the security to open their businesses,” he said.
The city has been slower to dig mass graves than outlying villages that also suffered heavy loss of life in the typhoon, because Tacloban neighborhoods have strongly resisted them, fearing that they might cause disease. Dr. Emmanuel M. Bueno, a director from the Philippines Department of Health, said that bodies would be disposed of safely, by laying them side by side in layers and putting sheets of tarpaulin sprinkled with lime in between each layer.
Local and national health officials agreed on Tuesday night to dig three mass graves just for Tacloban, Dr. Bueno said in an interview on Wednesday morning. “We are going to bury them in a mass grave so that decomposition will not be on view by the local residents,” he said. “We will give them at least a decent burial, with a blessing by a priest.”
Food is in such short supply that even government officials have little to eat. Dr. Bueno said that he was unable to get any food on Tuesday, and only had some coconut milk on Wednesday. Conditions are worse here for outsiders than during the Haiti earthquake in 2010, he said, adding that he had participated in the relief effort there.
“Rescuers there of course had food to eat and portable water,” he said.
The tropical heat here was sweltering on Wednesday, increasing the need for water, after briefly cooler weather on Tuesday followed torrential rains early that morning.
The true death toll from the typhoon is a mystery. The Philippine government put the official toll at 2,275. Few deaths have been confirmed in Tacloban because local officials say they are counting only bodies that they have collected or formally recorded.
But Mr. Yaokasin said that the leader of a single Tacloban neighborhood of 4,000 people had notified him that 1,000 residents had died.
Jennifer Cicco, the Leyte Island administrator of the Philippines Red Cross, said that thousands of people were missing and were presumed to have been swept out to sea and drowned. Arie Levy, the president of Sauveteurs Sans Frontières, a French nonprofit group, said that he had visited a village a mile beyond the city limits of Tacloban on Wednesday morning and estimated that there were roughly 1,000 bodies visible there.
Disease is the next concern. Mr. Levy said his group had run through its entire supply of tetanus vaccine from France in just two days, as crowds of people with lacerations from the typhoon or its aftermath had lined up for injections. Many streets here are so clogged with debris that pedestrians must walk carefully over piles of boards and other construction materials with protruding nails.
Many children have begun showing up at the group’s field hospital with fevers and diarrhea as well, probably from drinking contaminated water, he said. “The situation is just catastrophic,” he said.

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