Corpses hung from trees, were scattered on sidewalks or buried in flattened buildings — some of the thousands believed killed in one Philippine city alone by ferocious Typhoon Haiyan, which washed away homes and buildings with powerful winds and giant waves.
As the scale of devastation became clear Sunday from one of the worst storms ever recorded, officials said emergency crews could find more bodies when they reach parts of the archipelago cut off by flooding and landslides. Desperate residents raided grocery stores and gas stations in search of food, fuel and water as the government began relief efforts and international aid operations got under way.
Even in a nation regularly beset by earthquakes, volcanoes and tropical storms, Typhoon Haiyan appears to be the deadliest natural disaster on record.
Haiyan hit the eastern seaboard of the Philippines on Friday and barreled across its central islands, packing winds of 147 mph that gusted to 170 mph, and a storm surge of 20 feet.
Its sustained winds weakened to 74 mph as the typhoon made landfall in northern Vietnam early today after crossing the South China Sea, according to the Hong Kong meteorological observatory. Authorities there evacuated hundreds of thousands of people.
Hardest hit in the Philippines was Leyte Island, where regional police Chief Elmer Soria said the provincial governor had told him there were about 10,000 dead, primarily from drowning and collapsed buildings. Most were in Tacloban, the provincial capital of about 200,000 people that is the biggest city on the island.
Reports also trickled in indicating deaths elsewhere on the island. On Samar Island, Leo Dacaynos of the provincial disaster office said 300 people were confirmed dead in one town and another 2,000 were missing, with some towns yet to be reached by rescuers. He pleaded for food and water, adding that power was out and there was no cellphone signal, making communication possible only by radio.
Reports from other affected islands indicated dozens, perhaps hundreds more deaths.
With communications still knocked out in many areas, it was unclear how authorities were arriving at their estimates of the number of people killed, and it will be days before the full extent of the storm is known.
Haiyan inflicted serious damage to at least six of the archipelago's more than 7,000 islands, with Leyte, Samar and the northern part of Cebu appearing to bear the brunt of the storm. About 4 million people were affected by the storm, the national disaster agency said.
The Philippine National Red Cross said its efforts were hampered by looters, including some who attacked trucks of food and other relief supplies it was shipping to Tacloban from the southern port of Davao.
Tacloban's two largest malls and grocery stores were looted, and police guarded a fuel depot. About 200 police officers were sent into Tacloban to restore law and order. With other rampant looting reported, President Benigno Aquino III said he was considering declaring a state of emergency or martial law in Tacloban. A state of emergency usually includes curfews, price and food supply controls, military or police checkpoints and increased security patrols.
The casualties occurred even though the government had evacuated nearly 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that he and his wife, Michelle, were "deeply saddened" by the deaths and damage from the typhoon. He said the United States was providing "significant humanitarian assistance" and was ready to assist in relief and recovery efforts.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed the Pacific Command to deploy ships and aircraft to support search-and-rescue operations and fly in emergency supplies.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon was "extremely concerned" by the widespread destruction and the steeply rising death toll, according to a statement released by his office.
Ban said the United Nations and its humanitarian partners "have quickly ramped up critical relief operations" even though many communities remain difficult to reach, the statement added. The Philippines is annually buffeted by tropical storms and typhoons, which are called hurricanes and cyclones elsewhere. The nation is in the northwestern Pacific, right in the path of the world's No. 1 typhoon generator, according to meteorologists. The archipelago's exposed eastern seaboard often bears the brunt of storms.
Even by the standards of the Philippines, however, Haiyan is a catastrophe of epic proportions and has shocked the impoverished and densely populated nation of 96 million people.
The country's deadliest disaster on record was the 1976 magnitude-7.9 earthquake that triggered a tsunami in the Moro Gulf in the southern Philippines, killing 5,791 people.
In Vietnam, about 600,000 people who had been evacuated from the central region returned home Sunday after a weakened Haiyan changed directions and took aim at the country's north.
Four people in central Vietnam died while trying to reinforce their homes for the storm, the national floods and storms control department said Sunday.