Residents gather salvageable materials from the ruins of houses after typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban in central Philippines. Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters
The road from the airport to the centre of town is just 11km long, but the journey can easily take six hours. To get to Tacloban, the small coastal city in Leyte province in the Philippines that was flattened on Friday by typhoon Haiyan, you have to manoeuvre around piled up dead bodies, uprooted trees, jagged pieces of debris, and survivors staggering around searching for food, water and supplies.
Little speaks of the destruction that Haiyan – considered the strongest recorded storm in history – has wrought than the devastation in this city of 220,000, which bore the brunt of the 195mph winds that made landfall and tore away roofs and ripped apart evacuation centres, with 6m-high storm surges turning roads into rivers of sewage and seawater, landing whole ships on top of houses and obliterating bridges and roads. At least 10,000 people are thought to be dead so far in Leyte province alone, with the toll expected to rise.
Without clean water, food or medicine, Tacloban survivors have begun raiding houses, shops and malls to find supplies, with video footage showing residents scrambling out of a mall with electronic goods that they would likely barter later for food. One shop-owner was photographed defending his store with a pistol, while reports emerged of aid convoys being hijacked and ATMs being robbed. Local officials warned President Benigno Aquino III, who visited Tacloban on Sunday, that residents from neighbouring towns were entering the city to steal supplies and requested that he declare martial law.
Even Tacloban's airport itself was reduced to a mere shell. But now survivors, authorities and media all crowd into its open walls: at once a makeshift command centre from which the army finally began, on Sunday, to deliver much needed supplies, it is also the only way out for many survivors, who are queuing hundreds-deep in an effort to leave the chaos behind.
Even more grimly, the airport has been turned into a makeshift morgue to house the growing number of dead, some of whom have been found stacked in churches and hanging from trees, or underneath rubble. Mass graves have been dug to accommodate the corpses, with police chief Elmer Soria reckoning that most people either drowned or were crushed to death by crumbling buildings.
"It was like a tsunami," said Philippines interior secretary Mar Roxas, who visited Tacloban this weekend by helicopter. "I don't know how to describe what I saw. It's horrific."
With communications still down across vast swathes of the hardest hit areas, it is impossible be judge the scale of the destruction. Aid agencies warn that it has been impossible to reach all those affected, with airports and harbours across the Philippines either entirely closed or badly disrupted. This means that emergency teams have been forced to try to reach survivors by foot, in many cases walking for hours over debris to access remote and ravaged areas.
Aya Lowe from Samar island, who drove to Tacloban from Manila to assess the damage, said the roads in and out of the town were at a standstill. "We came across the main bridge towards Tacloban and there was just a huge traffic jam to come in or out," she said. "There were people coming in on mopeds and families trying to find their loved ones, and people coming out with boxes of shampoo and mayonnaise and random stuff."
Luiza Carvalho, the UN's resident and humanitarian coordinator for the Philippines, said it was vital that aid agencies reach those who are stranded in isolated areas. "They are at risk of further threats such as malnutrition, exposure to bad weather and unsafe drinking water," she said.
But with the typhoon having made landfall across a number of cities – one Filipino official joked the storm "island hopped" before moving on to Vietnam, where it is expected to make landfall on Sunday night in the central provinces – Tacloban is just one town among many that will have to be rebuilt from scratch. If the death toll is to be believed, Haiyan could emerge as the deadliest natural catastrophe in the Philippines' history.
Over 350,000 people are awaiting supplies in 1,220 evacuation centres across the country, with over 4.3 million people across the Philippines affected by Haiyan, said Orla Fagan of UN OCHA. Rescue teams deployed in Bogo city and San Remigio, on the island of Cebu, said some buildings have been flattened to the ground, with significant damage to both homes and sugar plantations, which have served as many residents' primary source of income in this agricultural area.
Fagan said that the scale of destruction had become even more widespread as more news emerged from the areas affected, adding that some areas were still 80% under water.
UN teams have been dispatched to the areas south and north of Tacloban and to Ilo Ilo, to the west of Leyte and Samar islands, in order to assess the damage there. "We haven't been to the west of the Visayas yet so we have no idea what's gone on there," Fagan said. "We could be replicating what happened in Tacloban."
President Aquino has come under fire for an initially slow relief effort, but argued that logistics prevented emergency supplies from reaching devastated areas any sooner. International aid, however, is on the move, with the US flying in Marines on Sunday with the aim of providing much-needed logistics, and the UK announcing £6m in initial emergency aid and the EU €3m for immediate relief. The US embassy said it would provide $100,000 for health, water and sanitation support. Australia said it would provide an initial 15.5m pesos ($358,900) in relief supplies. The World Food Programme will also be sending food, communications equipment and logistics to Cebu, just west of Leyte, with a number of military planes departing on Sunday from Villamor Airforce Base in Manila with food, fuel, generators, body bags, runway lights, search and rescue teams and police.
"Our priority right now is sending out security – Philippines national police – to deal with the violence," spokesman Colonel Miguel Okol told the Guardian.
While a number of Tacloban residents aimed to board the military planes headed back to Manila, hundreds of friends and family crowded together at the air base trying to make the opposite journey in order to find relatives they feared may have been killed by the typhoon.
"Until now, I have had no contact with my family in Tacloban, so I have been here since 5am," said Almar Rosal, 21, one of some 20 university students at the base. "I just want to check on them to make sure they're OK, but we were told the planes stopped because people were hijacking supplies. So now we are going to drive to Leyte. It will probably take us 24hrs to reach Tacloban city."
Another Tacloban resident, Rochelle de Leon, decided to fly from Manila to Cebu, then a boat to Leyte island, where she would have to take a van and walk a substantial way to enter Tacloban city, carrying with her supplies like biscuits, coffee, first-aid kits and flashlights. "I'll dress in camouflage so that we won't get mobbed," she said by telephone from Cebu. "I just want to know that my mum is OK. She was home alone when the typhoon hit, and, well, I haven't heard anything since."