If the typhoon death toll is confirmed, it would be the deadliest natural catastrophe on record in the Philippines.
MANILA — Typhoon-ravaged Philippine islands faced a huge relief effort Monday as bodies lay in the streets and survivors pleaded for food, water and medicine.
Police guarded stores to prevent people from taking TVs and treadmills in Tacloban, the worst-hit city.
Philippines officials said that Friday's typhoon may have killed 10,000 or more people but with the slow pace of recovery the official death toll remained well below that.
A weakened Typhon Haiyan made it way across the border from northern Vietnam into China's Guanxi province late Monday morning with sustained winds of 75 mph, the equivalent of a Category One hurricane. While the system produced heavy rainfall of up to 12 inches in some areas and strong winds, damage was relatively limited.
The Philippine military confirmed nearly 1,000 dead but broken communications and transportation links meant that no one was able to assess damage in many villages in need of food, water and medical help.
Tacloban resembled a garbage dump from the air and only by a few concrete buildings that remained standing.
"I don't believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way — every single building, every single house," U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy said after taking a helicopter flight over the city. He spoke on the tarmac at the airport, where two Marine C-130 cargo planes were parked, engines running, unloading supplies.
Authorities said at least 9.7 million people in 41 provinces were affected by the typhoon. It's one of the most powerful recorded typhoons to ever hit land and likely the deadliest natural disaster to hit the Philippines. Entire villages were destroyed and cities devastated by huge waves and winds of nearly 150 mph.
Philippine soldiers were distributing food and water in Tacloban, and assessment teams from the United Nations and other international agencies were seen for the first time. The U.S. military dispatched food, water, generators and a contingent of Marines to the city, the first outside help in what will swell into a major international relief mission.
"This area has been totally ravaged," said Sebastien Sujobert, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Tacloban. "Many lives were lost, a huge number of people are missing, and basic services such as drinking water and electricity have been cut off," he said.
A weakened but still powerful Haiyan was churning through the South China Sea and made landfall in northern Vietnam, which evacuated tens of thousands of people.
At the White House, President Obama said he and his wife Michelle said they are "deeply saddened'' by the death and damage in the Philippines and said the United States is assisting relief and recovery efforts. He praised the country's people for "incredible resiliency.''
In the Philippines, authorities were still trying to get to islands that no one had been able to communicate with since the typhoon struck.
Frantic relatives crowded into the Villamor Air Base in Manila to wait for transport planes that were rescuing people from at least six of the archipelago's more than 7,000 islands that were hit hardest.
Maritess Tayag, in her 40s, and her sister, Maryann, 29, arrived at the airport dizzy, shaken and thirsty but elated to be alive. They came from their home in Tacloban on the island of Leyte, one of the hardest hit.
"I was in the house — trapped in my room. The water is up to my nose — I cannot breathe anymore. I am trying to save myself," said Maritess Tayag, describing the early hours of Saturday when ceaseless wind drove dark seawater mixed with foul-smelling water from canals higher and higher into their homes.
Death toll could reach 10,000 as disaster relief heads for the Philippines after the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, officials said on Sunday. VPC
Her brother was in the house, too, trying to keep his head above the rising water, she said. But, "It reached up over his head. Then a big wave of fast flood reached up higher.
"I feel I would die at this moment because I can't — I don't know what I will do," Tayag said, crying.
Her younger sister and sister-in-law made it to the roof. Her brother and mother did not, she said, and both are probably dead.
Maryann Tayag described their town as looking as if it was a "World War II city" and said everyone was trying to flee in fear.
"It was almost a stampede at the airport in Tacloban," she said. "Everyone was trying to get on the plane. It's really, really terrible."
It was not until Sunday that authorities communicated with Leyte island. The sisters said there was no power or phone service. They said they saw looting everywhere. Food and water are almost non-existent, they said.
"It's all washed out ... including the hospitals and malls, by the strong winds and floods that came," Maritess Tayag said.
"The hardest thing is ... seeing your mother floating in the flood and you don't know what to do. You just see there and the only thing is you have to save yourself," Maryann Tayag said. "I could not save her because she drowned already, and it was not just water from the sea but mixed with dirty water — color black, like it came from river and smell like canal."
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Regional Police Chief Elmer Soria said he was briefed by Leyte provincial Gov. Dominic Petilla late Saturday and told there were about 10,000 deaths on the island, mostly by drowning and collapsed buildings. The governor's figure was based on reports from village officials in areas where Typhoon Haiyan hit Friday.
Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim said that the death toll in the city "could go up to 10,000." A mass burial was planned Sunday in Palo town near Tacloban.
After two days with no news from her family, elementary teacher Cherry Gonzaga left her home in Manila for Cebu for a late-night ferry to Leyte island.
"There's no way to get through to them, and my entire family is there, 15 people," said Gonzaga, 24, as she waited for tickets at a pier with dozens of other Filipinos desperate to learn their relatives are safe.
If the typhoon death toll is confirmed, it would be the deadliest natural catastrophe on record in the Philippines, topping both the 5,100 killed by Tropical Storm Thelma in November 1991 and the 5,791 killed after a magnitude-7.9 earthquake triggered a tsunami in the Moro Gulf in the southern Philippines in 1976.
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Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said President Benigno Aquino III was "speechless" when he told him of the devastation in Tacloban.
"I told him all systems are down," Gazmin said. "There is no power, no water, nothing. People are desperate. They're looting."
In Vietnam, emergency responders are shifting gears as Haiyan's forecasted path has moved northward, leaving residents in the central part of the country breathing a sigh of relief.
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Francis Markus, spokesman for the Red Cross in Vietnam said that the unpredictable trajectory of the storm has stretched the country's emergency response resources thin, creating new challenges as preparations have shifted from the center to the north of the country.
And while the central area was spared the brunt of Haiyan, Vietnam remained on high alert as the deadly typhoon neared.
"We don't really have an idea of the severity with which this northern region is going to be hit," Markus said. "I think everybody's been very shocked by the horror of the impact of Haiyan in the Philippines and it means we really have to do the maximum to prepare for it in Vietnam and in China and certainly not be complacent."
Contributing: Tom Maresca from Ho Chi Minh City; Doyle Rice from McLean, Va.; and the Associated Press