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TACLOBAN, Philippines — A regional police official and an administrator in the central Philippines city of Tacloban, which was ravaged by one of the strongest storms to ever make landfall, said today that the death toll could reach 10,000 people.
Regional police Chief Elmer Soria said he was briefed by Leyte provincial Gov. Dominic Petilla on Saturday and told there were about 10,000 deaths on the island, mostly by drowning and from collapsed buildings.
Tacloban Administrator Tecson Lim said the death toll in the city alone “could go up to 10,000.”
Gwendolyn Pang, the secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross, emphasized that all early figures are “just an estimate.”
“The local Red Cross chapter has seen many bodies,” she said. “An actual body count has to be done to determine the exact number.”
After arriving in Tacloban on Saturday, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said it was too early to know how many people had died in the storm, which was heading toward Vietnam after moving away from the Philippines.
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“The rescue operation is ongoing. We expect a very high number of fatalities as well as injured,” Mr. Roxas said.
President Benigno Aquino III said the casualties “will be substantially more,” but gave no figure or estimate.
The Social Welfare and Development Department of the Philippines reported that the storm had affected 4.28 million people in about 270 towns and cities spread across 36 provinces in the central Philippines.
Mr. Aquino said the government’s priority was to restore power and communications in isolated areas to allow for the delivery of relief and medical assistance to victims.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Mr. Aquino was “speechless” when he told him of the devastation the typhoon had wrought in Tacloban.
“I told him all systems are down,” Mr. Gazmin said. “There is no power, no water, nothing. People are desperate. They’re looting.”
U.S. Marine Col. Mike Wylie surveyed the damage in Tacloban prior to possible American assistance.
“The storm surge came in fairly high and there is significant structural damage and trees blown over,” said Colonel Wylie, who is a member of the U.S.-Philippines Military Assistance Group based in Manila.
At the request of the Philippine government, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed U.S. Pacific Command to deploy ships and aircraft to support search-and-rescue operations and airlift emergency supplies, according to the Defense Department.
Tacloban is near the Red Beach on Leyte Island where U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur waded ashore on Oct. 20, 1944, fulfilling his famous pledge, “I shall return,” made in March, 1942, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered him to relocate to Australia as Japanese forces pushed back U.S. and Filipino defenders.
Tacloban was the first city to be liberated by U.S. and Filipino forces and served as the Philippines’ temporary capital for several months.
It is also the hometown of former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos, whose nephew, Alfred Romualdez, is the city’s mayor.
Some meteorologists said the storm hit land with sustained winds above 190 mph.
Videotape of the storm shows ocean water rushing through the streets of Tacloban, which has an estimated population of 220,000.
Experts said the flooding there was a result of a storm surge.
Speaking to Reuters, the manager of the city’s airport, which is on a strip of land that juts into the sea, estimated that water there rose up to 13 feet.
One Tacloban resident said he and others took refuge inside a parked vehicle to protect themselves from the storm, but the vehicle was swept away by a wall of water.
“The water was as high as a coconut tree,” said 44-year-old Sandy Torotoro, a bicycle taxi driver who lives near the airport with his wife and 8-year-old daughter. “I got out of the jeep, and I was swept away by the rampaging water with logs, trees, and our house, which was ripped off from its mooring.”
“When we were being swept by the water, many people were floating and raising their hands and yelling for help. But what can we do? We also needed to be helped,” Mr. Torotoro said.
Mr. Aquino said at a news briefing Saturday evening in Manila that he would visit the hardest-hit areas today.
He said the restoration of communications was a priority so rescue efforts can be coordinated. The government has been flying in military cargo planes carrying food, clothing, and shelters, but blocked roads have made distribution difficult.
Richard Gordon, the chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, said that his staff members on the ground had been profoundly affected by the level of devastation.
“Our people are shocked by what they are seeing,” he said. “They have never seen anything like this.”
Mr. Gordon said most of the information about damage and casualties was coming out of Tacloban, where the media and government officials are concentrated.
Towns elsewhere on the island of Leyte remain largely out of contact.
“When we get to the interior towns, I fear we will find a lot of dead bodies,” he said.
He said there were also areas out of contact in northern Cebu and on the island of Panay, as well as parts of Palawan and Mindoro.
In a sign of the difficulties of reaching some of the hardest-hit areas, Mr. Roxas said that people would need to do their best to survive while rescuers tried to reach them.
The storm’s sustained winds weakened Saturday to 101 mph with stronger gusts as it blew toward Vietnam.