TACLOBAN, Philippines - A super typhoon that destroyed entire towns across the Philippines is believed to have killed more than 10,000 people, authorities said Sunday, which would make it the country's deadliest recorded natural disaster.
The horrifying new feared death toll from Super Typhoon Haiyan came as the United States pledged military help in the relief effort and as countless survivors across a huge swathe of the country remained without aid for a third day.
Ten thousand people were believed to have been killed in the worst-hit province on Leyte, regional police chief Elmer Soria told reporters in Tacloban, the devastated provincial capital.
"We had a meeting last night with the governor and, based on the government's estimates, initially there are 10,000 casualties (dead). About 70 to 80 percent of the houses and structures along the typhoon's path were destroyed," Soria said.
The scenes in Tacloban, a city of 220,000 people, and other coastal towns were reminiscent of a tsunami aftermath, with concrete slabs the only part of many homes remaining, vehicles flipped over and power lines destroyed.
"This is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumbleweed and the streets are strewn with debris," said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the head of a UN disaster assessment coordination team, in Tacloban.
"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.
Haiyan hit Leyte and the neighbouring island with maximum sustained winds of around 315 kilometres (195 miles) on Friday, and generated waves up to three metres (10 feet) high that surged deep inland.
However, while Leyte was believed to have been the worst hit, the carnage extended across a 600-kilometre stretch of islands through the central Philippines.
A few dozen other deaths had been confirmed in some of these areas, but authorities admitted they were completely overwhelmed and many communities were still yet to be contacted.
"We're still establishing command and control through logistics and communications," military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.
He said among the communities yet to be contacted was Guiuan, a fishing town of about 40,000 people on Samar island that was the first to be hit after Haiyan swept in from the Pacific Ocean.
About 130 hundred kilometres to the west of Tacloban, the popular tourist islands of Malapascua appeared to be in ruins, according to aerial photographs, with people there unaccounted for so far.
"The coast guard commander cannot communicate with the area. They are cut off in communications and from power," regional civil defence director Minda Morante told AFP.
Deadliest natural disaster on record
The Philippines endures a seemingly never-ending pattern of deadly typhoons, earthquakes, volcano eruptions and other natural disasters.
It is located along a typhoon belt and the so-called Ring of Fire, a vast Pacific Ocean region where many of Earth's earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur.
However, if the feared death toll of above 10,000 is correct, Haiyan would be the deadliest natural disaster ever recorded in the Philippines.
Until Haiyan, the deadliest disaster was in 1976, when a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake devastated the Moro Gulf on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, killing between 5,000 and 8,000 people.
In Washington, the Pentagon announced that US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel had responded to a request from the Philippines for military aid.
"Secretary Hagel has directed US Pacific Command to support US government humanitarian relief operations in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan," it said.
"The initial focus includes surface maritime search and rescue, medium-heavy helicopter lift support, airborne maritime search and rescue, fixed wing lift support and logistics enablers."
United Nations leader Ban Ki-moon also pledged that UN humanitarian agencies would "respond rapidly to help people in need".
Ban is "deeply saddened by the extensive loss of life" and devastation caused by Haiyan, said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky in a statement.