TACLOBAN, Philippines -- As many as 10,000 people are believed dead in one Philippine city alone after one of the worst storms ever recorded unleashed ferocious winds and giant waves that washed away homes and schools. Corpses hung from tree branches and were scattered along sidewalks and among flattened buildings, while looters raided grocery stores and gas stations in search of food, fuel and water.
Officials projected the death toll could climb even higher when emergency crews reach areas cut off by flooding and landslides. Even in the disaster-prone Philippines, which regularly contends with earthquakes, volcanoes and tropical cyclones, Typhoon Haiyan appears to be the deadliest natural disaster on record.
Haiyan hit the eastern seaboard of the Philippine archipelago on Friday and quickly barreled across its central islands before exiting into the South China Sea, packing winds of 235 kilometers per hour (147 miles per hour) that gusted to 275 kph (170 mph), and a storm surge that caused sea waters to rise 6 meters (20 feet).
It wasn't until Sunday that the scale of the devastation became clear, with local officials on hardest-hit Leyte Island saying that there may be 10,000 dead in the provincial capital of Tacloban alone. Reports also trickled in from elsewhere on the island, and from neighboring islands, indicating hundreds, if not thousands more deaths, though it will be days before the full extent of the storm's impact can be assessed.
"On the way to the airport we saw many bodies along the street," said Philippine-born Australian Mila Ward, 53, who was waiting at the Tacloban airport to catch a military flight back to Manila. "They were covered with just anything -- tarpaulin, roofing sheets, cardboards." She said she passed "well over 100" dead bodies along the way.
In the storm's aftermath, people wept while retrieving the bodies of loved ones from inside buildings. On a street littered with fallen trees, roofing material and other wreckage, all that was left of one large building were the skeletal remains of its rafters.
The airport in Tacloban, about 580 kilometers (360 miles) southeast of Manila, was a muddy wasteland of debris, with crumpled tin roofs and overturned cars. The airport tower's glass windows were shattered, and air force helicopters were flying in and out as relief operations got underway. Residential homes lining the road into Tacloban city were all blown or washed away.
"All systems, all vestiges of modern living -- communications, power, water -- all are down," Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said after visiting Tacloban on Saturday. "There is no way to communicate with the people."
Haiyan raced across the eastern and central Philippines, inflicting serious damage to at least six of the archipelago's more than 7,000 islands, with Leyte, neighboring Samar Island, and the northern part of Cebu appearing to take the hardest hit. It weakened as it crossed the South China Sea before approaching northern Vietnam. It was forecast to hit land Monday morning.
On Leyte, regional police chief Elmer Soria said the provincial governor had told him there were about 10,000 deaths there, primarily from drowning and collapsed buildings. Most of the deaths were in Tacloban, a city of about 200,000 that is the biggest on Leyte Island. A mass burial was planned for Sunday in a nearby town.
On Samar, Leo Dacaynos of the provincial disaster office said 300 people were confirmed dead in one town and another 2,000 were missing, while some towns have yet to be reached by rescuers. He pleaded for food and water and said power was out and there was no cellphone signal, making communication possible only by radio.
Reports from the other affected islands indicated dozens, perhaps hundreds more deaths.
The massive casualties occurred even though the government had evacuated nearly 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon. About 4 million people were affected by the storm, the national disaster agency said.
President Benigno Aquino III flew around Leyte by helicopter on Sunday and landed in Tacloban to get a firsthand look at the disaster. He said the government's priority was to restore power and communications in isolated areas and deliver relief and medical assistance to victims.
Challenged to respond to a disaster of such magnitude, the Philippine government also accepted help from its U.S. and European allies.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the military's Pacific Command to deploy ships and aircraft to support search-and-rescue operations and airlift emergency supplies, while European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso sent Aquino a message saying "we stand ready to contribute with urgent relief and assistance if so required in this hour of need."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon offered his condolences and said U.N. humanitarian agencies were working closely with the Philippine government to respond quickly with emergency assistance, according to a statement.
The Philippines is annually buffeted by tropical storms and typhoons, which are called hurricanes and cyclones elsewhere on the planet. The nation is positioned alongside the warm South Pacific where typhoons are spawned. Many rake the islands with fierce winds and powerful waves each year, and 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 many more people than the previous deadliest Philippine storm, Thelma, which killed around 5,100 people in the central Philippines in 1991.The 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.
Haiyan's winds were so strong that Tacloban residents who sought shelter at a local school tied down the building's roof, but it was ripped off anyway and the school collapsed, City Administrator Tecson Lim said. It wasn't clear how many died there.
The city's two largest malls and groceries were looted and the gasoline stations destroyed by the typhoon. Police were deployed to guard a fuel depot to prevent the theft of fuel. Two hundred additional police officers came to Tacloban on Sunday from elsewhere in the country to help restore law and order.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino was "speechless" when he told him of the devastation the typhoon had wrought in Tacloban.
"I told him all systems are down," Gazmin said. "There is no power, no water, nothing. People are desperate. They're looting."
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 the Second World War 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 Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos, whose nephew, Alfred Romualdez, is the city's mayor.
One Tacloban resident said he and others took refuge inside a parked Jeep to protect themselves from the storm, but the vehicle was swept away by a surging wall of water.
"The water was as high as a coconut tree," said 44-year-old Sandy Torotoro, a bicycle taxi driver who lives near the airport with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. "I got out of the Jeep and I was swept away by the rampaging water with logs, trees and our house, which was ripped off from its mooring.
"When we were being swept by the water, many people were floating and raising their hands and yelling for help. But what can we do? We also needed to be helped," Torotoro said.
In Torotoro's village, bodies could be seen lying along the muddy main road, as residents who had lost their homes huddled with the few possessions they had managed to save. The road was lined with trees that had fallen to the ground.
Vice Mayor Jim Pe of Coron town on Busuanga, the last island battered by the typhoon before it blew away to the South China Sea, said most of the houses and buildings there had been destroyed or damaged. Five people drowned in the storm surge and three others were missing, he said by phone.
The sound of the wind "was like a 747 flying just above my roof," he said. His family and some of his neighbors whose houses were destroyed took shelter in his basement.
Tim Ticar, a local tourism officer, said 6,000 foreign and local tourists were stranded on the popular resort island of Boracay, one of the tourist spots in the typhoon's path.
UNICEF estimated that about 1.7 million children are living in areas impacted by the typhoon, according to the agency's representative in the Philippines Tomoo Hozumi. UNICEF's supply division in Copenhagen was loading 60 metric tons of relief supplies for an emergency airlift expected to arrive in the Philippines on Tuesday.
"The devastation is ... I don't have the words for it," Interior Secretary Roxas said. "It's really horrific. It's a great human tragedy."
Associated Press writers Oliver Teves and Teresa Cerojano in Manila, and Minh Tran in Hanoi, Vietnam, contributed to this report.