Hunger, panic in Philippines as death toll climbs

Eight crushed to death during raid on warehouse as residents of disaster zone struggle to find food

A woman cries as other survivors of the typhoon wait to board a C-130 aircraft for evacuation from Tacloban.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Desperation gave way to violence in typhoon-ravaged parts of the Philippines on Wednesday as looting turned deadly and survivors panicked over shortages of food, water and medicine, some digging up underground water pipes and smashing them open.

Six days after one of the strongest storms ever recorded slammed into cities and towns in the central Philippines, anger and frustration boiled over as essential supplies dwindled.

In the worst incident of post-storm looting to date, eight people were crushed to death on Wednesday when desperate survivors raiding rice stockpiles in a government warehouse in the town of Alangalang caused a wall to collapse, local authorities said.

Those raiding the warehouse still managed to cart away 33,000 bags of rice weighing 110 pounds each, said Orlan Calayag, administrator of the state-run grain agency the National Food Authority.

The official death toll from Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines had risen to 2,344 as of Wednesday evening local time, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. The number is expected to climb further as rescue operations continue.

Some areas in the disaster zone appeared to teeter near anarchy amid widespread looting of shops and warehouses for food, water and supplies.

Warehouses owned by food and drink company Universal Robina Corp. and drug company United Laboratories were ransacked in the storm-hit town of Palo in Leyte province, along with a rice mill in Jaro, said Alfred Li, head of the Leyte Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

There were reports of gunfire between security forces and armed men near a mass grave in worst-hit Tacloban in Leyte, but City Administrator Tecson John Lim denied a clash had occurred, based on information he had received from the army.

Lim said 90 percent of the coastal city of 220,000 people had been destroyed, with only 20 percent of residents receiving aid. Houses were now being looted because warehouses were empty, he said.

"The looting is not criminality. It is self-preservation," Lim told Reuters.

In their desperate search for water, some survivors in Tacloban dug up water pipes. "We don't know if it's safe. We need to boil it. But at least we have something," said Christopher Dorano, 38.

Resident Rachel Garduce said the aid — 6 pounds of rice and 1 liter of water per household a day — was not adequate. Her aunt in Manila, 360 miles to the north, was traveling by road and ferry to bring supplies. "We are hoping she won't get hijacked," Garduce said.

There are also reports of jailbreaks and rape in the affected cities.

"It's the criminals who escaped from the prison. They're raping the women," said Violeta Duzar, 57, who was hoping to catch a flight out of Tacloban, partly out of fear for her family's safety. "Tacloban is a dead city."

Officials, meanwhile, minimized these reports.

Tacloban City Administrator Lim said that "less than 10" prisoners escaped from jail after the typhoon struck, and the country’s interior secretary, Mar Roxas, denied that law and order were breaking down.

"It is wrong to say there is lawlessness in the city," Roxas told reporters.

LIVE BLOG: Disaster in the Philippines

The government has been overwhelmed by the force of the typhoon, which destroyed large swaths of Leyte province, where local officials have said they feared 10,000 people died, many drowning in a tsunami-like surge of seawater.

President Benigno Aquino III, who has been on the defensive over his handling of the disaster, said the government was still gathering information from various storm-struck areas, and that although the death toll may rise, initial reports of 10,000 dead were exaggerated.

"Ten thousand, I think, is too much," Aquino told CNN in an interview. "There was emotional drama involved with that particular estimate."

But some aid workers cast doubt over official estimates, which have only 84 people missing.

"Probably it will be higher because numbers are just coming in. Many of the areas we cannot access," Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine Red Cross, told Reuters.

The preliminary number of missing, according to the Red Cross, is 22,000, but Pang noted that the figure could include people who have since been located.

Google, which has set up websites to help people share and look for information about missing persons during catastrophes, currently lists some 65,500 people as missing from the typhoon.

But Google staff warned against reading too much into the data, pointing out that a similar website set up after the Japanese tsunami in 2011 listed more than 600,000 names, far higher than the final death toll of under 20,000.

More than 670,000 people have been displaced by the storm and nearly 12 percent of the population was directly affected, according to U.N. estimates.

Al Jazeera with Reuters

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