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DISASTER MANAGEMENT
US carrier spearheads Philippine relief effort
by Staff Writers
Aboard Uss George Washington, Philippines (AFP) Nov 15, 2013


Philippines raises typhoon death toll to 3,621
Manila (AFP) Nov 15, 2013 - The Philippines raised its official death toll from a super typhoon to 3,621 Friday, but it was still below a UN count that has caused friction between the world body and the government.

Reynaldo Balido, spokesman for the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, said the number of confirmed dead had risen significantly from the previous count of 2,360, adding that 1,140 were reported missing.

"It is the result of reporting by the LGUs (local government units)," he said.

"The LGUs did not report immediately" because "they have to be careful in their reporting. They have to validate everything," he added.

"The clearing operations of roads and communities are ongoing and we will see if there are more dead bodies (underneath the debris)."

Earlier Friday, confusion deepened when the Philippines agency disputed UN death toll figures, and officials said a police general who claimed 10,000 people might have been killed was removed from his position.

Citing regional authorities, the UN said Friday the latest figure for the number of dead in last week's storm -- one of the most powerful ever recorded -- was at least 4,460.

The national disaster council maintained a much lower figure of 2,360, with Balido saying "not true" when asked about the UN's toll, before raising it later.

The differing counts came as officials said regional police chief Elmer Soria had been removed from his post, adding another twist in a tale which has seen President Benigno Aquino accused of downplaying the scale of the disaster.

"Superintendent Soria and many of our police officers from Region 8 have been through a lot over the past days and they may be experiencing what you might call 'acute stress reaction'," national police spokesman Reuben Sindac said.

"As such, it was deemed by higher headquarters that might need to go through some 'stress debriefing', hence, his recall.

"A new regional director (not affected by the recent events)," has been appointed "as his replacement", he added.

The death toll from Super Typhoon Haiyan has been a source of contention and confusion between the UN and the Philippine government for much of the past week.

After Soria made his claim, John Ging, operations director for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on Monday said it was estimated that over 10,000 people had died.

The next day Aquino told CNN that number was "too much", suggesting that the final toll would be around 2,500.

"Government credibility is sustaining a lot of damage as it makes conservative estimates to downplay the extent of the tragedy," said Rommel Banlaoi, head of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

OCHA said Friday its number was acquired from the regional taskforce of the Philippine National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) on Wednesday.

"As of 13 November, the government reported that 4,460 people have died," an OCHA statement said.

Asked for the source of the figures, Manila-based OCHA spokeswoman Orla Fagan said: "We are getting it from the operations centre of the regional taskforce set up by the NDRRMC."

On Thursday UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said: "The figure of 10,000 is not a UN figure," adding that it was put together by local officials.

"We have no way of verifying. I think it will take a long time before we have an accurate assessment of the number of people who have died."

US Navy helicopters and planes Friday launched non-stop aid flights to desperate survivors of a super typhoon in the Philippines that killed thousands, igniting a global relief effort criticised for being too slow.

On the USS George Washington a continuous stream of helicopters landed and took off from the huge carrier as they shuttled supplies to the devastated city of Tacloban and remote villages.

Amid the roar of aircraft sailors bustled to load boxes of food and other relief goods onto helicopters, as enormous volumes of water were desalinated before being sent to the thirsty and famished victims of last week's typhoon.

"The USS George Washington is delivering water, medical supplies and hygienic supplies" to towns worst hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan," US Seventh Fleet spokesman Lieutenant David Levy said in a statement.

Twenty US Navy helicopters were in "continuous operation", he added, saying some had been evacuating wounded and destitute survivors from remote areas devastated when the Category Five storm hit, packing brutal winds that generated tsunami-like waves.

The United Nations said almost 4,500 had been confirmed killed in the typhoon -- one of the strongest ever recorded -- and the lives of many others were hanging by the thinnest of threads, even as the relief operations moved up a gear.

The Philippines' disaster agency upped their toll to 3,621 as the government and the UN continued to disagree over the count.

In Tacloban city's only functioning hospital -- without a roof, power or water -- a woman frantically pumped air into the lungs of her husband, lying critically ill a day after his leg was amputated.

Valentina Gamba, the head of nursing at the hospital, said they had tried to discharge patients who they could not feed.

"But they still stayed for shelter... because they cannot go home," Gamba told AFP.

Several kilometres away at the city's airport, hundreds of famished and homeless survivors hoping to escape stricken Leyte island looked on as American soldiers unloaded aid from aircraft onto trucks.

Emergency supplies have been excruciatingly slow to get through to increasingly desperate survivors, with United Nations humanitarian chief Valerie Amos admitting that the delivery of relief goods had not been quick enough.

The USS George Washington Strike Group -- with 5,000 sailors on the huge carrier alone, and seven other ships -- arrived on Thursday with badly needed equipment, manpower and expertise, giving some hope that the delivery of aid would speed up.

"I heard there are now American planes," 28-year-old Merly Araneta said.

"I will try to make it to the airport. But I have only eaten twice in five days and drank rainwater collected in a plastic cup. I am so tired."

Ships and planes from Asia-Pacific nations and Europe are converging on the Philippines, bearing food, water, medical supplies, tents and other essentials.

Prime Minister David Cameron dispatched the biggest vessel in Britain's own fleet, a helicopter carrier, while heavy transport planes carrying equipment such as forklift trucks have already arrived.

China has upped its aid contribution after its initial offer of $100,000 was widely criticised, and its state media increased the pressure on Beijing Friday, urging it to join other countries in deploying warships.

At Tacloban airport US aircraft were coming in two at a time. American servicemen were driving trucks loaded with aid and appeared to be acting quasi-independently, with a large part of the airfield to themselves.

"The Government of the Philippines requested assistance in getting supplies to remote areas inaccessible by truck, so that's where the focus has been," the US Navy's Levy said in the emailed statement.

"Guiuan is the supply hub and Navy helicopters distribute from there to the remote areas where need is greatest."

"In addition, USS George Washington and USS Lassen helicopters have carried displaced and injured civilians from remote areas such as islands in Leyte Gulf to areas where medical aid is present," he said.

Levy added that US Navy amphibious ships -- the Japan-based USS Germantown and USS Ashland -- were expected to arrive in three to four days.

On Tacloban's streets, the sense of want is gnawing for a population in dire need of the basics of life.

In a heavily damaged school that had been turned into a makeshift shelter for around 1,000 people, Alita Nabelga, 81, said water was starting to get through but that there was no food or medicine.

"It is so hard for us here. There is nothing to eat. There is water that is rationed. But it would be better if there was food," she said.

"Where are the Americans? Are they bringing us rice?" she added.

A US embassy official told AFP that the carrier's strike group was getting supplies on to the ground.

"We're setting up a significant presence but it is still under the direction of the Philippines," he said.

Aid agencies welcomed the USS George Washington's arrival.

"It will probably stabilise the situation for people in remote communities who remain isolated," Red Cross spokesman Patrick Fuller said.

"What is critical is that we humanitarian organisations have good cooperation with the military. It's crucial that good civil-military operations work effectively. We have experience in places like Haiti where there was some communication gap."

AFP journalists saw dead bodies still lying by the side of the road Friday, and the smell of rotten flesh hung in the air, despite many corpses being put in bags ready for mass burial.

While the retrieval of the dead continues, there are growing fears for the health of those who survived.

The World Health Organisation says there are significant injuries that need to be dealt with -- open wounds that can easily become infected in the sweltering tropical heat.

Experts warn that a reliable supply of clean drinking water is vital if survivors are to avoid diarrhoea, which can lead to dehydration and death, especially in small children.

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