TACLOBAN, Philippines - One of the strongest typhoons on record likely killed hundreds of people as tsunami-like waves and savage winds flattened entire communities in the Philippines, authorities said Saturday.
Super Typhoon Haiyan tore into the eastern islands of Leyte and Samar on Friday with sustained winds of around 315 kilometres (195 miles) an hour, then tormented millions of people as it ripped across the Southeast Asian archipelago.
After reaching the devastated fishing town of Palo in Leyte by helicopter, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla said he believed "hundreds" of people had died just in that area.
Petilla, a Palo native, was dispatched by President Benigno Aquino to survey the island and said there were similar scenes of carnage in three other cities or towns in Leyte.
"They all looked the same. The roofs were off all the buildings they were littered with fallen trees," he said.
But authorities said they had no idea just how many people had died, with Haiyan causing major damage across a 600-kilometre stretch of islands through the central Philippines.
Some of the worst-hit areas on Leyte and Samar, isolated by destroyed power and communication lines as well as damaged roads, had yet to be contacted. More than four million people were affected across 36 provinces, the government said.
Aside from the ferocious winds, Haiyan generated storm surges that saw waves three metres (10 feet) high swamp coastal towns and power inland.
"This is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumble weed and the streets are strewn with debris," said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the head of a United Nations disaster assessment coordination team.
"The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami," he said, referring to the 2004 disaster that claimed about 220,000 lives.
Stampa made his comments after arriving in Tacloban, the destroyed capital of Leyte with a population of about 220,000 people that is about 10 kilometres from Palo. More than 100 bodies were littered in and around Tacloban's airport, according to the facility's manager.
AFP journalists who arrived in Tacloban on a military aircraft encountered dazed survivors wandering amid the carnage who were asking for water, while others sorted through what was left of their destroyed homes.
One resident, Dominador Gullena, cried as he recounted to AFP his escape but the loss of his neighbours.