Super Typhoon Haiyan Causes Massive Damage To The Philippines, UNICEF's First Drive To Send Aid

U.N. Relief Official to Help Coordinate Aid Efforts

The top United Nations relief official flew to the Philippines on Monday to help lead the global response to the powerful typhoon that killed thousands and upended the lives of nearly 10 million people in the country’s midsection. International aid groups mobilized to rush food, water and sanitation supplies to the victims, a struggle in the face of impassable roads, obliterated seaports and severely damaged airstrips.

The move by the relief official, Valerie Amos, to take more personal charge of the effort came three days after the typhoon, Haiyan, left a path of destruction across 41 provinces in the Philippines and as the scope of its devastation was only starting to become clear. The storm was believed by some climatologists to be the most powerful ever to make landfall.

In the flattened city of Tacloban, where as many as 10,000 people may have died and corpses were on the streets, rainfall that began late Monday was adding new complications to the relief effort. Earlier it took supply convoys three hours just to traverse the seven-mile route into town from the airport, said John Ging, the operations manager of United Nations emergency relief coordination.

Asked if he thought the death toll could rise, he said, “We hope it doesn’t get any higher, but we have to be prepared for the worst.”

At a news briefing at the United Nations headquarters, Mr. Ging said Ms. Amos, the United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and the emergency relief coordinator, was expected to arrive in the Philippines on Tuesday. She released $25 million from a special fund to help pay for immediate assistance and was beginning what aides called a flash fund-raising drive. At least $35 million in additional aid was pledged by other governments on Monday.

“All the focus is on a rapid mobilization of a very large response,” Mr. Ging said. “This is quite unprecedented in scale.”

The effort led by the United Nations came as the United States significantly increased its assistance to the Philippines. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who had ordered 90 Marines and a half dozen aircraft to assist over the weekend, on Monday ordered the aircraft carrier George Washington and other Navy ships in the Pacific “to make the best speed for the Republic of the Philippines.”

The George Washington, which carries 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft, was ordered to depart from a port visit in Hong Kong, and the crew was recalled from shore leave immediately. Mr. Hagel also reiterated the American intent to help the Philippine government determine “what, if any, additional assets may be required.”

The Philippine government was grateful for the assistance, but it also appeared anxious to retain basic strategic controls, which may have had the unintended consequence of hampering some relief efforts. The Tacloban airport control tower was destroyed, for example, but the government did not ask the United States military to help manage air traffic control with a temporary replacement setup, as it has sometimes done elsewhere. Without a tower, all pilots flying into Tacloban were forced to land by sight, slowing deliveries.

The outpouring of support and sympathy was seen around the world, but it was particularly strong in the United States, stoked by social media publicity and the large size of the Filipino population, the second-largest Asian-American group in the country. Some aid groups reported generous pledges from the New York area, reflecting what they called the sympathy effects caused by Hurricane Sandy a year ago.

The United Nations relief agency said on its website that as of Monday, 9.8 million people had been affected across the Philippines and more than 659,000 were displaced from their homes. But Mr. Ging and other top relief officials at the United Nations and elsewhere said they could not yet calibrate the full scope of the death and devastation because they simply did not have enough facts.

Charities with long experience in the Philippines said they were not waiting for guidance.

“At this early stage, the big issue for us is moving people and aid supplies to the affected area,” Natasha Reyes, the Philippines emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, the Paris-based medical aid organization, said in an emailed update. Dr. Reyes also said: “Right now we’re operating in a relative black hole of information. We know from the very little we can see that the situation is terrible. But it’s what we don’t see that’s the most worrying.”

Bob Kitchen, the global emergency director of the International Rescue Committee, one of the oldest aid groups, said it was already assuming that transportation was going to be the biggest challenge in delivering help. “If we can’t get to the communities affected because the road systems are down, we’re going to have to up our game,” he said.

Even with the best planning, advance notice of storms and the lessons learned from previous calamities, the prospect of an initially confused relief effort was difficult to avoid. “There are always unique circumstances in these disasters,” said Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow and expert on natural disasters at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s hard to prepare for these really big storms.”

Still, Ms. Ferris and other experts said the Philippines was relatively well positioned to handle the crisis, even as it evoked images of the devastation wrought on impoverished countries by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the January 2010 Haiti earthquake.

“In the Philippines, you have a functioning government. That’s the main difference,” said Andrea Tamburini, the director of operations at Action Against Hunger, an emergency group that operates in 47 countries. “The country goes into recurrent crises. They have a much better way of coordinating.”

Robert S. Zeigler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Philippines, said he was concerned that the damage reports seemed to be mainly from Tacloban, the provincial capital of Leyte, where aid had been concentrated so far, and not from the many fishing communities on the coast. “The coastal areas can be quite vulnerable — in many cases, you have fishing communities right up to the shoreline, and they can be wiped out” by a powerful storm surge, he said.

The storm appeared to have obliterated most structures in northern Panay Island, to the west of Tacloban. While the number of deaths was unclear, fishing boats in Estancia, a busy Panay port, were returning Monday with hauls of corpses that had been swept out to sea.

“We retrieved 11 more bodies from the ocean today, and they are still washing ashore,” said Eugene Tentativo, Estancia’s disaster risk reduction officer. “The morgues are full.”

Reporting was contributed by Keith Bradsher from Tacloban, the Philippines; Floyd Whaley from Estancia, the Philippines; Austin Ramzy from Cebu, the Philippines; and Thom Shanker from Washington.