Substantial food and medical aid has finally begun to reach desperate survivors of a super typhoon that killed thousands in the Philippines, but humanitarian groups are warning of huge challenges in accessing devastated communities in remote areas.
The unprecedented ferocity of Typhoon Haiyan on Nov. 8 and the scale of destruction it caused had completely overwhelmed the initial relief effort, leaving millions in the worst-hit central islands of Leyte and Samar hurt, homeless and hungry, with no power or water.
Eight days later, aid workers are funneling emergency supplies to those left destitute in the ruins of Leyte's Tacloban city, while helicopters flying off the aircraft carrier USS George Washington have brought some relief to outlying areas.
In Giporlos, a small coastal town of around 12,000 people in eastern Samar, where the typhoon first struck, a U.S. Seahawk helicopter flew in the first relief supplies on Saturday, landing in the playground of a ruined school.
"We're very happy even if it isn't really sufficient for us," said resident Maria Elvie Depelco. "We accept a little, and we survive. Because there's no more food, no houses here," she said, pointing to the flattened remains of the town where 12 people died.
In the nearby town of Guiuan, planes laden with supplies were landing and taking off every few minutes from an old military airstrip that had been reopened.
U.N. agencies said more than 170,000 family food packages had been distributed across the disaster zones, while the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) international aid agencies said that they would have mobile surgical units up and running in Tacloban by the end of the weekend.
"The place really needs to be saturated with relief," Red Cross Asia-Pacific spokesman Patrick Fuller said in Tacloban. "People literally have nothing. Money is useless here."
A U.N. official said in a guarded compliment that many countries had come forward to help.
"The response from the international community has not been overwhelming compared to the magnitude of the disaster, but it has been very generous so far," Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told the Geneva news briefing.
Captain Victoriano Sambale, a military doctor who for the past week has treated patients in a room strewn with dirt and debris in Tacloban, which bore the brunt of the storm, said there had been a change in the pace of the response.
"I can see the international support coming here," he said.
But he is still overwhelmed. "Day one we treated 600-plus patients. Day two we had 700-plus patients. Day three we lost our count."
Since the arrival of the USS George Washington late Thursday, the U.S. military said it had delivered 118 tons of food, water and shelter items to Tacloban and elsewhere, and airlifted nearly 2,900 people to safety.
Although aid was arriving, relief officials described sanitary conditions in the covered sports stadium in Tacloban that served as the main evacuation center as appalling.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council on Saturday put the official death toll at 3,633, many of them killed by massive storm surges that hit Tacloban.
Another 1,179 people were listed as missing and nearly 12,500 injured, and the death toll was widely expected to continue climbing as more complete assessments were made.
The U.N. said Saturday that 2.5 million people still "urgently" required food assistance.
An estimated 13 million people were affected by the storm, which swept off the Pacific Ocean with some of the strongest winds ever recorded, including nearly 1.9 million displaced survivors.