US carrier spearheads Philippine relief effort

Cecil Morella
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Typhoon survivor Rosel Honrado (R), 24, carries her one-day-old son Ian Daniel as they take a flight on a C-130 military plane out of Tacloban in the Philippines on November 13, 2013

A US aircraft carrier sent mercy flights into the typhoon-smashed Philippines on Friday, transporting urgently needed aid for survivors still begging for help in wreckage strewn with bodies one week after the disaster.

The USS George Washington is flying missions to towns worst-hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan as well as "remote areas that we could not access earlier," Philippine Air Force spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Miguel Okol said.

Thousands are feared to have died in the storm, and the lives of many others were hanging by the thinnest of threads, even as the relief operations moved up a gear.

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 devastated 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.

On Friday, the Philippines government disputed the UN's take on the extent of the death toll. The world body says 4,460 have been confirmed dead, but the Philippines' National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council insisted the number remained at 2,360.

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."

Tacloban mayor Alfred Romualdez said helicopters were "delivering support and relief goods to different communities".

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 $100,000 was widely criticised, and its state media increased the pressure on Beijing Friday, urging it 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.

Romualdez said he was "very grateful" for all the help. But on the city'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 still 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.