The U.S. Navy arrived with a mammoth aircraft carrier Thursday to bring much-needed aid to hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who have gone without food and clean water for nearly a week.
The Navy cut short the shore leave of the crew of 5,500 to send it on the relief mission to the area ripped apart last week by Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest cyclones on record.
Its winds, 3.5 times as strong as those of Hurricane Katrina, pushed in a wall of water 15 feet high, washing away towns on many islands in the south of the country.
Seven more ships accompanied the carrier USS George Washington. All total, they have about 80 aircraft on board that could participate in search, surveillance and distribution missions, said Paul Macapagal, a Navy spokesman.
But for now, they will lean the most on their 21 helicopters to carry supplies to hard-to-reach areas destroyed in the storm.
One of the ships, a nearly 700-foot supply vessel, made its first delivery of food and water to the devastated city of Tacloban in the Philippines.
By Thursday morning, the official death toll climbed to 2,357. More than 3,800 were injured and 77 are reported as missing, though that number is likely higher.
Earlier fears that the death toll could reach 10,000 have subsided. The national police Thursday dismissed the officer who made the initial prediction, state-run Philippine News Agency reported.
"Even if police officials have figures, they should send them to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, which should collate the numbers and officially release them," spokesman Alan Purisima said.
Bloated corpses of dogs lie near body bags containing human remains in Tacloban.
People sift through debris in the dark, wading through rancid puddles formed after frequent heavy rain showers. Along some streets, groups sit among the stinking piles of wreckage, huddled around small fires cooking food.
Police checkpoints are in place on the road from the airport to the city and on some streets in the city center, ready to enforce the curfew that kicks in at 8 p.m.
Flickers of everyday life still appear, clashing with the extreme devastation. A shrieking pig was being shoved inside the shell of a building to be slaughtered. In front of another damaged structure, an animal carcass was being butchered. And a few vendors were selling cooked pork.
But food appears to remain desperately scarce for most.
At the Tacloban Convention Center, food supplies were handed out Thursday for the first time since the typhoon struck, according to people who had taken refuge there. It was the first time they had tasted rice in more than a week.
But they said they didn't know when the next delivery might come.
"We're all waiting for help from the government," said May May Gula, 30, a member of one of eight families sharing what was left of a room on the building's ground floor.
The families had taken shelter at the convention center ahead of the typhoon, heeding warnings from officials. They also managed to get to the building's higher levels when the devastating storm surge roared in from the sea.
Many of those who remained on the ground floor were killed or injured, Gula and her friend Lina Reforzado said.
The families' nearby homes were all destroyed, they said, and they're now stuck in the convention center with scores of others. Clothes hang from the building's upper floors, and makeshift shelters constructed from storm debris have sprung up around it.
"We really don't know what we're going to do next," Gula said.
At the airport, large groups of people keep up their efforts get out of the shattered city. But with more security forces present, the waiting appears to have become more orderly than in previous days.
A line of people, taking shelter from the fierce sun and intermittent rain under colorful umbrellas, snakes out of the remnants of the terminal building and into the wreckage-laden parking area.
Some seem particularly in need of a quick exit. One man stood holding an intravenous drip for his wife, who sat on a chair clutching a pallid young child.
U.S. aid arrives
The U.S. sailors arrive to a scene of desolation, where help comes too late for many, and international aid has piled up at airports, blocked from distribution to the starving by miles of debris piled up on roads to hard-hit areas.
It is taking a long time to clear them and establish communications in to remote areas, said Philippine Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas.
"Imagine a situation where from zero, from zero, no power, light, water, communication, nothing, you have to build the social infrastructures as well as the physical infrastructures for 275,000."
Only 20 trucks are operating and they are overloaded with tasks, he said. Half are delivering food; half are clearing roads and removing dead bodies that have been lying around since the storm hit.
He led a cadaver recovery team himself on Tuesday and Wednesday, he said.
The danger of violence
also looms over the relief efforts.
Police warned a CNN crew to turn back Wednesday on the road south of Tacloban, saying rebels had been shooting at civilians.
"Maybe they are looking for food," a police commander said.
Though progress is slow, Roxas feels it is doubling by the day.
72 orphans, no water
It is still too slow for 72 orphans in Tacloban, who will run out of water within hours.
Still, they are some of the happiest children in the capital of Leyte province, laughing and playing in the ruins of the Street Light orphanage.
Director Erlend Johannesen is determined to take care of them and keep giving them hope, after nearly losing them to the storm surge last week.
As it inundated the orphanage, where they live, he led the children to an upper floor veranda.
Haiyan's winds howled around them, and the waves followed them upstairs. Johannesen helped the children onto a narrow roof.
They clung to it, until the storm blew over the town that many say was hit hardest. All 72 survived, as their city fell apart beneath them.
When the flood waters withdrew, Johannesen climbed down to find that salt sea water had contaminated the orphanage well.
He and his employees set out to find bottles of fresh water. Many people have given them tips on where they might find some.
"When we go there, there is nothing there," he said. No international aid is in sight.
To prevent the children from dying of thirst or drinking polluted water to survive, he sees but one option left:
Get out of Tacloban.
Moans of despair
On their way out, they may find some food and water at a local clinic, but it would be no place for them to stay long.
Hospitals are overflowing with the injured and the sick. But they are barely able to operate, hardly supplied and often lack electricity.
The cries of the suffering echoed through a small, cramped one-story Tacloban clinic, where the medicine was all but gone Thursday.
"We don't have any supplies. We have IVs, but it's running out," Dr. Katrina Catabay said.
"Most of the people don't have water and food. That's why they come here. Most of the kids are dehydrated. They are suffering from diarrhea and vomiting."
Food and water are becoming scarce there, too. The military is airlifting out the elderly, children and the sick.
For at least one man, the evacuation came too late.
He died at the clinic. His body was put on a gurney and pushed to the end of a hallway because there is nowhere to put him, the clinic staff said.
"Pushing aid" to Tacloban
The uptick in international aid arriving in the Philippines coincides with the opening of a road into Tacloban, holding out the promise that food, water and medicine will begin to flow more quickly.
Some relief crews are circumventing the blocked roads, wastelands of debris and the danger of crime by flying over it, delivering aid by air into more remote devastated areas.
U.S. Marines arrived Wednesday in Cebu, transforming the sleepy airbase there into a buzzing center of activity that included cargo aircraft, tilt-rotor Ospreys and camouflaged Marines
They Ospreys can land in remote spots where there are no cleared runways, but their crews find themselves hemmed in by debris.
"Some of those neighborhoods are inundated with water, and some of it's inaccessible," Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy said.
Marines will need heavy machinery to clear the rubble, and getting it in won't be easy.
U.N.: Pace of relief slow
Teams from Doctors Without Borders have reached remote Guiuan, a village of about 45,000 that was among the first areas hit by the full force of the storm, the agency said.
"The situation here is bleak," said Alexis Moens, the aid group's assessment team leader. "The village has been flattened -- houses, medical facilities, rice fields, fishing boats all destroyed. People are living out in the open; there are no roofs left standing in the whole of Guiuan. The needs are immense and there are a lot of surrounding villages that are not yet covered by any aid organizations."
Six days after the storm struck -- with more than 2 million people in need of food, according to the Philippine government -- even U.N. relief coordinator Valerie Amos acknowledged the pace of aid is still lagging.
"This is a major operation that we have to mount," she said Wednesday. "We're getting there. But in my view it's far too slow."
Philippine President Benigno Aquino has defended relief efforts, citing the challenges posed by the devastation.
Above all, he said, the intensity of the storm took everyone by surprise.