TACLOBAN, Philippines (AP) — Stunned survivors of one of the most powerful typhoons ever to make landfall picked through the remains of their homes Monday and pleaded for food and medicine as the Philippines struggled to deal with what is likely its deadliest natural disaster.
Authorities said at least 2 million people in 41 provinces had been affected by Friday's disaster and at least 23,000 houses had been damaged or destroyed. Large areas along the coast had been transformed into twisted piles of debris, blocking roads and trapping decomposing bodies underneath. Ships were tossed inland, cars and trucks swept out to sea and bridges and ports washed away.
"In some cases the devastation has been total," said Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras.
In Leyte province, the badly hit city of Tacloban resembled a garbage dump from the air, punctuated only by a few concrete buildings that remained standing.
The official death toll stood at just over 250 people, but two provincial officials said Sunday it could reach 10,000 or more. The disaster has shattered transportation and communication links, as well as local governance structures, making it hard to come up with a definite tally. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said "we pray" that the death toll is less than 10,000.
"Please tell my family I'm alive," said Erika Mae Karakot, a survivor on Leyte island, as she lined up for aid. "We need water and medicine because a lot of the people we are with are wounded. Some are suffering from diarrhea and dehydration due to shortage of food and water."
Even though authorities had evacuated some 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon, the death toll was predicted to be high because many evacuation centers — brick-and-mortar schools, churches and government buildings — could not withstand the winds and water surges. Officials said people who had huddled in these buildings drowned or were swept away.
The U.S. military dispatched water, generators and a contingent of Marines to the worst-hit city along the country's remote eastern seaboard, the first outside help in what will swell into a major international relief mission in the coming days. Two U.S. C-130 transport planes flew from Manila's Vilamor air base to Tacloban.
Survivors wandered through the remains of their flattened wooden homes, hoping to salvage belongings or find loved ones.
Residents have stripped malls, shops and homes of food, water and consumer goods. Officials said some of the looting smacked of desperation but in other cases items taken included TVs, refrigerators, Christmas trees and a treadmill. An Associated Press reporter in the town said he saw around 400 special forces and soldiers patrolling downtown to guard against further chaos.
"We're afraid that it's going to get dangerous in town because relief goods are trickling in very slow," said Bobbie Womack, an American missionary and longtime Tacloban resident from Athens, Tennessee. "I know it's a massive, massive undertaking to try to feed a town of over 150,000 people. They need to bring in shiploads of food."
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he was considering declaring a state of emergency or martial law in Tacloban. A state of emergency usually includes curfews, price and food supply controls, military or police checkpoints and increased security patrols.
Haiyan hit the eastern seaboard of the Philippines on Friday and quickly barreled across its central islands, packing winds of 235 kph (147 mph) that gusted to 275 kph (170 mph), and a storm surge of 6 meters (20 feet).
It inflicted serious damage to at least six islands in the middle of the eastern seaboard, with Leyte, Samar and the northern part of Cebu appearing to bear the brunt of the storm.
Video from Eastern Samar province's Guiuan township — the first area where the typhoon made landfall — showed a trail of devastation similar to Tacloban. Many houses were flattened and roads were strewn with debris and uprooted trees. The ABS-CBN video showed several bodies on the street, covered with blankets.
"I have no house, I have no clothes. I don't know how I will restart my life. I am so confused," an unidentified woman said, crying. "I don't know what happened to us. We are appealing for help. Whoever has a good heart, I appeal to you — please help Guiuan."
The United Nations said it was sending supplies but access to the worst hit areas was a challenge.
"Reaching the worst affected areas is very difficult, with limited access due to the damage caused by the typhoon to infrastructure and communications," said UNICEF Philippines Representative Tomoo Hozumi.
The storm's sustained winds weakened to 120 kph (74 mph) as the typhoon made landfall in northern Vietnam early Monday after crossing the South China Sea, according to the Hong Kong meteorological observatory. Authorities there evacuated hundreds of thousands of people, but there were no reports of significant damage or injuries.
It was downgraded to a tropical storm as it entered southern China later Monday, and weather officials forecast torrential rain over the coming 24 hours across southern China. Guangxi officials advised fishermen to stay onshore.
The Philippines, an archipelago nation of more than 7,000 islands, is annually buffeted by tropical storms and typhoons, which are called hurricanes and cyclones elsewhere. The nation is in the northwestern Pacific, right in the path of the world's No. 1 typhoon generator, according to meteorologists. The archipelago's exposed eastern seaboard often bears the brunt.
Even by the standards of the Philippines, however, Haiyan is a catastrophe of epic proportions and has shocked the impoverished and densely populated nation of 96 million people. Its winds were among the strongest ever recorded, and it appears to have killed more people than the previous deadliest Philippine storm, Thelma, in which about 5,100 people died in the central Philippines in 1991.
The country's deadliest disaster on record was the 1976 magnitude-7.9 earthquake that triggered a tsunami in the Moro Gulf in the southern Philippines, killing 5,791 people.
Pope Francis led tens of thousands of people at the Vatican in prayer for the victims. The Philippines has the largest number of Catholics in Asia, and Filipinos are one of Rome's biggest immigrant communities.
Tacloban, in the east-central Philippines, is near the Red Beach on Leyte Island where U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur waded ashore in 1944 during World War II and fulfilled his famous pledge: "I shall return."
It was the first city liberated from the Japanese by U.S. and Filipino forces and served as the Philippines' temporary capital for several months. It is also the hometown of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, whose nephew, Alfred Romualdez, is the city's mayor.
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Minh Tran in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.