UN: Death toll 4,460

Govt disputes figure, insists casualties only 2,360

THE United Nations said Friday the death toll from super typhoon Yolanda was at least 4,460, citing regional officials, but the national disaster council maintained a much lower figure.

Views from above. The United Nations and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration released satellite images of Tacloban City showing the man-made structures destroyed by Super Typhoon Yolanda.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the number of 4,460 was given from the regional task force of the Philippines’ National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council on Wednesday.

But NDRMMC’s spokesman Reynaldo Balido insisted the official toll from the typhoon that ripped through the central Philippines on Nov. 8 remained at 2,360.

“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 center of the regional task force set up by the NDRMMC.”

When asked about the UN’s statement: Balido replied: “Not true.” Then he repeated the NDRMMC’s published figure.

But the executive director of the NDRMMC, Eduardo del Rosario, pegged the death toll at 3,621and said counts forwarded by local government units still had to be validated.

Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II, on the other hand, said the toll had reached 2,600 or more by Thursday night, quoting the Office of the Civil Defense (OCD).

President Benigno Aquino III said on Tuesday that he estimated the final death toll would be around 2,500.

The Palace on Friday denied that a regional police chief was sacked over his early estimate of 10,000 deaths.

Deputy presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said Chief Supt. Elmer Soria was relieved because “he has been through so much stress.”

“The chief of the PNP decided to relieve him because, apparently, that particular police officer has been through so much stress and he also needs some rest,” Valte added.

A day after the super typhoon battered the Visayas region on Nov. 8, Soria said he received information that there were 10,000 deaths in Leyte.

Soria has been replaced as regional director by Chief Supt. Henry Losanes.

Like the NDRRMC, the Palace disputed the UN report of 4,460 deaths.

“I am unaware of the source of the UN figure,” Valte said.

UN photos show Tacloban last March and on Nov. 13 after the storm (Story on Page 3). The red areas in the NASA photos (left) show the damaged areas in the city. AFP/CNES, NASA
Valte also assured the public that there was no attempt by the government to play down the casualty count.

“There is no attempt to hide or fudge any figures. Any assertion otherwise would just be pure speculation at this point,” she said.

On Thursday night, a radio reporter from dzRH, Edmar Estabillo reported that the fatalities in Eastern Visayas rose to 5,016 based on the figures he saw from the tally board of the Office of Civil Defense office in Tacloban City.

Estabillo, who was in Tacloban City to cover the devastation wrought by Yolanda, said he was surprised to see the death toll was changed to 3,422.

Both figures surpassed the estimate of 2,000 to 2,500 that the President mentioned in his interview with CNN.

Estabillo told Manila radio news anchor Dennis Antenor that Roxas had allegedly ordered an OCD staff member to change the figure, but Roxas could not be reached for comment.

Confusion over the slow rise in the death count was accentuated by a rush to collect cadavers that littered the streets of Tacloban City six days after the typhoon struck.

Estabillo said the OCD explained that the official death toll should come from the NDRRMC.

Del Rosario on Friday said relief had not yet reached isolated areas of the province due to logistical problems.

“This is a big and massive logistics problem,” Del Rosario said as he urged patience and sincerity among those willing to help victims of Yolanda.

Roxas added that food supplies and equipment that were positioned in the province ahead of Yolanda’s arrival were washed out by the storm surge that hit the coastal areas.

“Imagine if the water from Manila Bay swept past Roxas Boulevard and entered Airport Road and reached the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, with waves as high as 20 feet,” Roxas said.

He acknowledged that the government was caught off guard by the magnitude of the disaster brought by Yolanda, and would have to review its disaster preparedness and response plans.

Local and international media have criticized the slow delivery of relief despite the outpour of aid and donations.

They described the relief efforts to date as disorganized and unsystematic.

In Tacloban City, bodies still lie where they fell or were washed up, the defining motif of a tragedy that has killed thousands.

The stench of bloated and discolored human flesh decomposing under the tropical sun hang everywhere in Tacloban, where wretched survivors and rescue workers cover their mouths to keep the cloying smell from their throats.

Hundreds have been collected, put into body bags and trucked off to wrecked municipal buildings to await burial in mass graves, a process that city authorities began on Thursday.

Officials and aid volunteers say those bodies that have been recovered are just the beginning, a small fraction of those that could be seen when the storm surge subsided. Many more, they say, lie under the mountains of debris.

“Leaving them (the bodies) just decaying on the roadside, uncollected, is next to unforgivable,” local Catholic priest Amadeo Alvero said.

Officials initially said picking up the bodies had to take second place to the effort to help those still living, many in utter destitution, their homes swept away and with precious little food or clean drinking water.

But they also conceded they had simply been overwhelmed by the number of dead, and had temporarily run out of body bags.

Echoing a fear expressed by many, Alvero said the dead could be the source of contagious disease.

“The government needs to act fast because this could also become a health issue,” he said.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona insisted the bodies did not pose a serious risk. Experts point out that a corpse can only carry a disease such as cholera if the disease was present before the person died.

“We have to assure our countrymen that... there will not be an epidemic,” he said. “The one thing we want is to identify them so we can give some peace to their relatives.”

Identification is not always easy, for instance when whole families have died, leaving no-one to ask.

Teams have been dispatched to Tacloban from the Justice Department’s investigating arm and the national police’s crime laboratory.

They know they will not identify every body they find straight away, but hope to collect enough evidence to allow that to be done later.

“On the scene, our doctors begin the documentation,” said Chief Supt. Liza Sabong, head of the national police crime laboratory and part of the contingent sent to Tacloban.

“We tag them as male or female, they photograph them, list the belongings on the cadaver itself. We do fingerprinting. We measure the body and then they are placed in cadaver bags.”

This “processing” will allow any surviving relatives at a later date to identify the body, possibly through its clothes or appearance, she said.

But the sheer scale of the task is overwhelming.

Only 13 of the 182 bodies collected by Sabong’s group have been picked up by their relatives, she said. The rest have been left behind.

Tacloban on Thursday began mass burials of some of those bodies that had been bagged and laid out by the shattered city hall.

The plan, said Mayor Alfred Romualdez, was that all those whose name and family were known would be placed into one huge pit. The unidentified rest would go into a separate mass grave.

Romualdez, who has been an outspoken critic of the rescue effort, said he believes three-quarters of all bodies collected had still not been claimed by family. In these circumstances, mass burials were the only option.

“Let’s get the bodies out of the streets,” he said. “They are creating an atmosphere of fear and depression.”

The head of the Justice Department’s forensics division, Wilfredo Tierra, said the collective burial was only intended as a stop-gap measure.

“They will be buried temporarily in a shallow, mass grave and when everything has settled down and the peace and order situation is not an issue anymore, then we will proceed with the proper disaster victim identification,” he said. – With Florante S. Solmerin, Francisco Tuyay and AFP


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