One of the most powerful typhoons in history is believed to have killed 1,200 people in the Philippines, the Red Cross said Saturday, as rescue workers raced to reach towns devastated by tsunami-like waves.
A day after Super Typhoon Haiyan whipped across the central Philippines with maximum sustained winds of around 315 kilometres (195 miles) an hour, a cataclysmic picture emerged of entire communities having been flattened.
Authorities said that, aside from the ferocious winds, storm surges of up to three metres (10 feet) high that swept into coastal towns and deep inland were responsible for destroying countless homes.
"Imagine a strip one kilometre deep inland from the shore, and all the shanties, everything, destroyed," Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said after visiting coastal towns in Leyte, one of the worst-hit provinces in the east of the archipelago.
"They were just like matchsticks flung inland."
The official government death toll on Saturday night was 138.
But with rescue workers yet to reach or communicate with many ravaged communities across a 600-kilometre stretch of islands, authorities said they were unable to give a proper assessment of how many people had been killed.
Philippine Red Cross secretary general Gwendolyn Pang said her organisation estimated 1,200 people had died, while a UN official who visited Leyte described apocalyptic scenes.
"This is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumbleweed and the streets are strewn with debris," said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the head of a UN disaster assessment coordination team.
"The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami," he said, referring to the 2004 disaster that claimed about 220,000 lives.
Stampa made his comments after arriving in Tacloban, the destroyed capital of Leyte with a population of about 220,000 people.
More than 100 bodies were littered in and around Tacloban's airport, according to the facility's manager.
AFP journalists who arrived in Tacloban on a military aircraft encountered dazed survivors wandering amid the carnage asking for water, while others sorted through what was left of their destroyed homes.
One resident, Dominador Gullena, cried as he recounted to AFP his escape but the loss of his neighbours.
"My family evacuated the house. I thought our neighbours also did the same, but they didn't," Gullena said.
Eight bodies had been laid to rest inside Tacloban airport's chapel, which had also been badly damaged, according to an AFP photographer.
One woman knelt on the flood-soaked floor of the church while holding the hand of a dead boy, who had been placed on a wooden pew.
Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla reached the fishing town of Palo, about 10 kilometres from Tacloban, by helicopter and said he believed "hundreds" of people had died just in that area.
Pope Francis tweeted his support for the typhoon victims: "I ask all of you to join me in prayer for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda especially those in the beloved islands of the Philippines."
Race to reach decimated communities
Meanwhile, the military, government relief workers and UN agencies battled to reach communities and deliver desperately needed supplies, with more than four million people having been affected.
Fifteen thousand soldiers were in the disaster zones and helping in the rescue effort, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP.
Zagala said helicopters were flying rescuers into priority areas, while C-130 planes delivered government relief from Manila to Tacloban.
But Roxas, the interior secretary, said the scale of the relief operation was overwhelming.
"Whatever is being brought in is not going to be enough," he said.
The World Food Programme said it was also arranging an airlift of emergency supplies from Dubai.
Philippine authorities had expressed confidence on Friday that only a few people had been killed, citing two days of intense preparation efforts led by President Benigno Aquino that saw nearly 800,000 people move to evacuation centres.
However by Saturday the disaster-plagued country was faced with the reality that it was in the midst of another major calamity.
"The enormity of the destruction is huge," Roxas said.
Haiyan's wind strength, which remained close to 300 kilometres an hour throughout Friday, made it the strongest typhoon in the world this year and one of the most intense ever recorded.
An average of 20 major storms or typhoons, many of them deadly, batter the Philippines each year as they emerge from the Pacific Ocean.
The Philippines suffered the world's strongest storm of 2012, when Typhoon Bopha left about 2,000 people dead or missing on the southern island of Mindanao.
Haiyan exited into the South China Sea on Saturday and tracked towards Vietnam, where more than 200,000 people crammed into storm shelters.
It was expected to make landfall in central Vietnam early Sunday, with millions of people thought to be in its path.