‘There are bodies on the streets, you are hit with the stench of death’

Al Jazeera correspondent witnesses scenes of ‘utter desperation’ in devastated city of Tacloban

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TACLOBAN, Philippines — There’s no easing into this situation when you arrive at what’s left of Tacloban Airport. You’re immediately faced with evidence of the destructive power of the storm.

The terminal building is standing, but only just. The control tower has no windows, but inside the staff manages to carefully maneuver the many military and civilian planes still landing and taking off.

Just off to the side of the parking lot, you are hit with the smell of death. A rotting corpse lies unclaimed yet already placed in a body bag.

There are scenes of utter desperation each day at the airport as thousands of people arrive to try to catch a plane out, eager to escape the misery of what Typhoon Haiyan inflicted on them.

But there are only so many places available on the Philippine and U.S. military flights, and when the last one leaves for the day, those who missed out face another night sleeping in the remains of the terminal building, which has huge holes in the roof. Among them, children, pregnant women, the injured, the sick and the elderly.

When the heavily guarded gates to the tarmac close for the last time at night, some vent their frustration at the soldiers, screaming at the guards to give them one last chance, some holding up babies to try to elicit some sympathy.

On the airport grounds, there are media and military camped in tents, surrounded by twisted metal, machinery and slabs of concrete that were all shunted around by the surge of water that came ashore on Friday.

Decaying bodies

The airport is something of a safe area, guarded by police and soldiers as the security situation on the streets of the city deteriorates.

It’s been set up as a makeshift command center, but no one seems to be in command.

Aside from the important job of getting people out, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of emphasis on relief work for those who remain.

There are plenty of flights delivering aid to the airport, but not much of it seems to be going to the people who need it. Coordination appears to be severely lacking.

Outside the airport, it’s not difficult to see why so many people are trying to escape.

The entire area is in disarray.

There are bodies on the streets, some left uncovered, decaying in the hot sun and tropical downpours. Others have been draped with material or roofing iron, and some have even been given the dignity of having their names written on whatever they’ve been covered with, to help with the identification process.

The collection of bodies has been painstakingly slow.

Mass graves

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Those that have been collected and identified are being taken to mass graves.

After a few days, the survivors seem to have become accustomed to seeing the bloated, disfigured corpses lying in their streets, with children walking past unperturbed. They have no choice.

But the smell is something they will never get used to.

There is a stench that is hanging over large parts of the area. As I write this, sitting outside my tent beside the airport tarmac, the wind has changed direction, and the smell of the body in the parking lot is filling the air.

The streets and alleys of Tacloban and surrounding areas are piled high with debris. Large trucks and cars were tossed about by the waves that caught everyone by surprise.

Wooden houses have been completely destroyed and have been reduced to piles of splintered timber. More substantial structures fared little better.

Lack of aid

Some of the walls may be standing, but more often than not, roofs were torn off by the wind, which gusted in excess of 180 mph.

Apart from local people picking through debris, there’s no one searching for the missing who are presumably still buried or were swept out to sea. There is very little clearing of rubble going on and, crucially, very little distribution of food and water.

In our travels around the area, we’ve seen a few government health workers doing basic medical treatments, two military trucks handing out water and no nongovernmental organizations.

There are some soldiers and police doing security work but clearly not enough, since looting is still a big problem. People are increasingly scared about intruders getting into their homes at night.

But what they are most frustrated about is the lack of aid from the outside.

They feel as if they’ve been forgotten, and I get the sense that the humanitarian situation is about to deteriorate even further.

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