TACLOBAN, Philippines — Decomposing bodies still lie along the roads, like a corpse in a pink, short-sleeved shirt and blue shorts facedown in a black, muddy puddle 100 yards from the airport.
Just down the road is a church that was supposed to be an evacuation center, but is littered with the bodies of those who drowned inside.
When a wind-whipped ocean rose Friday night, the ground floors of homes hundreds of yards inland were submerged within minutes, trapping residents like Virginia Basinang, a 54-year-old retired teacher, who suddenly found herself struggling in waist-deep water on the second floor of her home.
Screaming people bobbed in the water that surged through the streets, many grabbing for floating debris.
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“Some of them were able to hold on, some were lucky and lived, but most did not,” she said, adding that 14 bodies were left on a wall across the street when the seawater receded a half-hour later. The bodies are still there, and the odor of their decay makes it impossible for Basinang and her family to eat meals at home.
Typhoon Haiyan, among the most powerful in history, slammed into the eastern Philippine city of Tacloban four days ago and cut a path of devastation barreling west across the archipelago nation.
In its wake, corpses lay along roads lined with splintered homes and toppled power lines, as the living struggled to survive, increasingly desperate for fresh drinking water, food and shelter. The damage to everything was so great that it was hard even to tally. Mass graves began to fill as relief efforts struggled to get under way.
The roads of this once-thriving city of 220,000 were so clogged with debris from nearby buildings that they were barely discernible. The civilian airport terminal has shattered walls and gaping holes in the roof where steel beams protrude, twisted and torn by winds far more powerful than those of Hurricane Katrina when it made landfall near New Orleans in 2005.
One of the saddest and deadliest moments came when hundreds of people flocked to Tacloban’s domed sports arena at the urging of municipal officials, who believed its sturdy roof would withstand the wind. The roof did, but the arena flooded, and many inside drowned or were trampled in a frenzied rush to higher seats.
The top civil-defense official of the Philippines said in an interview after inspecting the damage that the storm surge had been the highest in the country’s modern history, perhaps explaining why so few thought they needed to flee inland and instead went to evacuation centers near the coast.
Nothing like this had ever happened. The sea level rose 10 to 13 feet and filled streets and homes deep in the city, propelled by sustained winds of at least 140 mph and gusts that were far stronger.
“It was a tsunami-like storm surge; it is the first time,” said Eduardo del Rosario, executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. Tacloban has been hit by typhoons for decades, but never had the sea risen high enough to pour over the swath of low salt marshes and inundate the city’s shady streets, he said.
As a violet sunset melted Monday into the nearly total darkness of a city without electricity, lighted only by a waxing half moon, dispirited residents walked home or lay down in the ruins of the airport terminal after another day of waiting at the airport in hope of fresh water, food or a flight out. Grocery stores and pharmacies across the city had been sacked over the weekend, leaving bare shelves for a city quickly growing hungry and thirsty.
A coast guardsman said he had helped fill a mass grave in the nearby village of Hernani. “I personally threw in one body earlier, and it was a relative of my friend in Manila — I haven’t told her yet because I can’t get a signal” for cellphone usage, said the coast guardsman, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The same friend in Manila has lost her grandfather, whom the coast guardsman threw in the mass grave, as well as her aunt and two cousins, the guardsman added, saying that other relatives who survived the typhoon had confirmed the identities of the dead.
This regional capital, the hometown of Imelda Marcos, was among the hardest hit in a nation accustomed to misery blown in from the sea. But this storm was like nothing before it, and its devastation was not yet fully understood. Villages along the coasts may have been wiped out, and the toll — at least 10,000 in Tacloban alone are feared dead — was just an estimate. Relief efforts were complicated by a persistent and heavy rain.
Miriam Refugio, 60, waited in the crowd at the airport seeking a scarce place on a flight to Manila.
“Our home was destroyed, there is no food in this town, so we have to flee,” she said, standing with her teenage granddaughter who held their only drinking water, a nearly empty plastic bottle that could hold perhaps 2 cups.
They were trying to decide whether to drink water from a nearby pump, even though the granddaughter, tugging at her stomach for emphasis, said they were certain to become sick if they did.
Del Rosario said the government was still sending out helicopters Monday to look for communities that had not been heard from since the typhoon.
But one of the biggest questions involves the many people who seem to have disappeared, possibly sucked out to sea when the ocean returned to its usual level.
Rosemary Balais, 39, said a very large proportion, possibly more than half, of the 5,000 people in her hometown Tanauan, near Tacloban, seemed to be missing.
“My sister and their children were there, and we have not heard from them since last Thursday,” she said, adding they had lived only about 300 yards inland.
“There was a neighbor who had won a lottery and had a big house, and even that house was flattened,” she said.
Compounding the damage was the extraordinary force of the wind. Palm trees are naturally resilient, flexing and bending in high winds. But entire groves were flattened and their trunks left in tangles on the ground as though giant boxes of toothpicks had been tipped over.
In a country cursed by a succession of natural disasters, from earthquakes to violent storms to volcanic eruptions, the typhoon was especially deadly and destructive. “It’s going to be classified as one of the worst, if not the worst, in decades,” among disasters that have struck the Philippines, said Ricky Carandang, a presidential spokesman.