Philippines readies for mass burials as survivors beg

TACLOBAN,Philippines - Scores of decaying bodies lay in bags outside Tacloban's ruined city hall Thursday, ready for trucking by overwhelmed Philippine authorities to mass graves, as destitute typhoon survivors pleaded for help of any kind.

Almost 200 corpses - many of them unidentified - were lined up side by side outside the government building almost a week after one of the most powerful typhoons ever to make landfall smashed through the central Philippines, killing thousands.

"There are still so many cadavers in so many areas. It's scary," Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez said, adding that retrieval teams were struggling to cope.

"There would be a request from one community to collect five or 10 bodies and when we get there, there are 40," Romualdez told AFP, claiming that aid agencies' response to the increasingly desperate crisis had been too slow.

Six days after Super Typhoon Haiyan unleashed its fury, President Barack Obama urged Americans to dig deep in donations to their former Asian colony. US officials said relief channels were slowly opening up as an aircraft carrier leads a small armada of warships steaming towards the Philippines.

But on the ground, aid is still not getting through to the hungry and thirsty battling to survive the aftermath.

Sick or injured people lie helplessly among the ruins of buildings, while those with the energy try to leave a place that resembles hell. "The situation is dismal," conceded UN humanitarian aid chief Valerie Amos, who visited Tacloban on Wednesday.

"Those who have been able to leave have done so. Many more are trying. People are extremely desperate for help," she told reporters in Manila. "We need to get assistance to them now. They are already saying it has taken too long to arrive. Ensuring a faster delivery is our... immediate priority."

'An atmosphere of fear and depression'

Efren Nagrama, area manager at the civil aviation authority, said conditions were "very dire now" as he surveyed the filthy stream of humanity at Tacloban's battered airport clamouring to get a flight out.

"You see hundreds coming to the compound every day. People who have walked for days without eating, only to arrive here and be made to wait for hours or days under the elements," he said.

"People are pushed to the tipping point - they see relief planes but cannot get to the food nor get a ride out. There is chaos."

Mayor Romualdez said the people of Tacloban needed an "overwhelming response" from aid organisations and the government.

"We need more manpower and more equipment," Romualdez pleaded. "I cannot use a truck to collect cadavers in the morning and then use it to distribute relief goods in the afternoon," he added.

"Let's get the bodies out of the streets. They are creating an atmosphere of fear and depression."

Romualdez said the plan was to start mass burials in the nearby village of Basper Thursday, a day after attempts to lay to rest some of Haiyan's victims were abandoned when gunshots halted a convoy travelling towards a communal grave.

City officials estimate that they have collected 2,000 bodies but insist many more need to be retrieved. The UN fears that 10,000 people may have died in Tacloban city alone, but President Benigno Aquino has described that figure as "too much".

Romualdez said the bodies lying on the grass outside city hall were waiting for the military to transport them to two burial sites - one for the identified and one for those whose names are not known.

While the retrieval operation gets going, there are growing fears for the health of those who survived.

The World Health Organisation has said there were significant injuries that need to be dealt with - open wounds that can easily become infected in the sweltering tropical heat.

Experts warn that a reliable supply of clean drinking water is absolutely vital if survivors are not to fall victim to diarrhoea, which can lead to dehydration and death, especially in small children.

Steaming to the rescue

Pledges of help continued to come in from abroad, with Obama on Wednesday urging Americans that "even small contributions can make a big difference and help save lives".

Along with ships and planes sent by an array of countries including Australia, Britain and Japan, the United States has dispatched an advance force of Marines equipped with cargo planes and versatile Osprey aircraft.

The USS George Washington carrier and other Navy ships are expected in the Philippines by Friday and Washington has committed $20 million, roughly half for food and the rest to prevent disease outbreaks.

One US official said relief workers were now able to get more aid out of Tacloban airport, and that the opening of a land route had given a significant boost by connecting to a sea port.

The initial effort was "a lot like trying to squeeze an orange through a straw", the official told reporters on a conference call. "We are now getting more straws, if you will, and bigger straws."

However, hundreds of Philippine soldiers and police continue to patrol Tacloban's streets and man checkpoints to try to prevent pillaging after outbreaks of lawlessness.