Death toll rises to 3,621 as more bodies turn up in the Philippines

Posted at 8:57 AM, Nov 15, 2013
and last updated 2013-11-15 11:12:26-05

By Jethro Mullen. Ben Brumfield and Tom Watkins

TACLOBAN, Philippines (CNN) — As crews collected more bodies off of streets and from underneath rubble in the Philippines Friday, the national disaster agency raised the death toll in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan to 3,621.

The number of injured stood at 12,165, state news agency PNA reported, after the storm ripped up a group of the nation’s islands with winds stronger than those of Hurricane Katrina. At least 1,140 are missing.

More than a week later, sickness, hunger and thirst have settled in with the sticky, humid heat and stench of rancid flesh hanging over the apocalyptic scene.

Survivors in improvised shelters have kept watch over the bodies of their dead relatives.

Juvelyn Taniega tried to keep busy. She collected old dishes and cleaned them, crouching near where her home once stood and the place where she last saw her husband and six children alive.

She’s found the bodies of three of her children, but three of them are still missing. In days, she said, no one has come to help.

“My children are decomposing,” she said.

There are many like her, looking in disbelief over miles of fields full of crushed wood and stone that once stood as houses, wondering if her missing loved ones are buried in them.

Cadaver collectors in debris-removal crews uncover some of them, while heaving away wreckage from the roads.

But the bodies that Haiyan had initially flung everywhere are becoming a rarer sight, as cadaver crews pull up in trucks to collect them for mass burial in nameless graves.

PNA reported Friday that five-person teams containing a forensic expert and photographer would begin Saturday using a “quick system” for the bodies.

“Under the system, the public will not be allowed to view the identification process but relatives will be asked to participate in the final identification of corpses at an appointed time,” it reported, citing the Department of Health.

Each team will be required to handle 40 corpses per day, it said.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona said that photos will be taken, identifying marks will be documented, and belongings and tissue samples for possible use in DNA testing will be collected, when practical.

Officially, 801 bodies were counted in Tacloban by Friday morning, but thousands are feared dead in this city, where entire neighborhoods were swept out to sea.

Wandering children

On Friday, children wandered unattended through the city’s streets.

They are the most vulnerable and the most needy, UNICEF spokesman Kent Page told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“Health, nutrition, getting them clean water, good sanitation, protection, and we have to consider education also,” Page said.

“Schools have been wiped out and getting kids into child-friendly spaces — where they can feel protected, where they can get a chance to play, where they can get a sense of normalcy back in their life after going through such a devastating experience — is very important.”

Many parents were simply trying to get their children to safety. In some cases, mothers accompanied them out of town to places where food, water and shelter were available, while the fathers stayed behind to sort through the remains of their lives, Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez said.

He advised other families to follow their example.

Turning a corner?

By Friday, crews had cleared the major streets of Tacloban, which was once home to 220,000 people and is now largely a ghost town populated by fields of rubble.

Many survivors have converged on the city’s airport, where they waited in line for space on flights out.

Others took to the sea. As naval ships pushed up on beaches like gray whales and dropped their loading bay gates, people laden with possessions entered the bellies of the arks en route to new lives elsewhere.

At the convention center, many stood for hours in long lines under the sun awaiting the next load of food and bottled water to arrive in bulk pallets from around the world.

Some were there because they had nowhere else to go.

“We really don’t know what we’re going to do next,” said 30-year-old May May Gula, who was among nine families sharing a room on the convention center’s ground floor.

Reaching and helping the survivors — more than 2 million of whom need food, according to the government — are priorities.

Mayor Romualdez said his town is turning toward recovery; he likened Tacloban to a boxer struggling to stand up after getting knocked out.

Such efforts were helped on Thursday, when the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier with 5,500 crew, sailed into Philippine waters.

It was accompanied by eight more ships that, together, carry 80 aircraft, including 21 helicopters that can deliver supplies to villages, where many roads have been obliterated, and identify people still cut off from help.

Irony of fate

Some who would typically have provided aid found themselves needing help.

Ryan Cardenas, with the Philippine Navy, helped with recovery efforts in each of the past two years after cyclones that left hundreds dead.

But when Haiyan slammed into the Tacloban naval station where he’s based, he and other sailors were in no position to help others immediately — they stayed alive by clinging to rafters in their barracks.

Their commanding officer, who was in a separate building badly damaged by the storm, clutched a palm tree’s trunk for survival.

Afterward, the sailors helped retrieve bodies, according to Cardenas. One found his mother sitting dead against a wall.

Now, they’re sorting through the wreckage of the naval station and awaiting orders.

“This is the worst,” Cardenas said, taking a break from fixing a piece of damaged furniture. “We’re both victims and rescuers.”

Concerns of violence

The violence was not all caused by Haiyan. A Philippines senator said she’s learned of reports of rapes and other crimes against women, some allegedly by prison escapees, PNA reported.

Sen. Nancy Binay expressed alarm after hearing TV reports of assailants breaking into homes.

But the U.S. military has said that violent crime is less of an obstacle to providing aid than is the debris that blocks roads.

Someone to live for

Jericho, a boy whose mother, aunt and nine cousins died in Tacloban, told his father he wanted to leave the city on one of the planes he has seen above.

His father told him they have to stay.

“We have no money,” he said. “Just each other.”

Another man whose wife and child drowned said he can’t get the images out of his mind.

“The first one that I saw was my youngest,” he said. “She fainted, and then she drowned. The water was so fast. And then my wife, when I tried to grab her, I missed her. Then she drowned, and then I never saw her again.”

Over the past week, he said, he has been thinking of killing himself but hasn’t, because he still has one child who needs him.

CNN’s Jethro Mullen reported from Tacloban; Ben Brumfield and Tom Watkins wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN’s Anna Coren contributed from Cebu; Karen Smith, Greg Botelho and Catherine Shoichet contributed from Atlanta.

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