Devastation Feared Across Central Philippines in Typhoon’s Wake

CEBU, Philippines — One of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded now appears to have devastated cities, towns and fishing villages with heavy loss of life when it played a deadly form of hopscotch across the islands of the central Philippines on Friday.

Barreling across palm-fringed beaches and plowing into frail homes with a force that by some estimates approached that of a tornado, but sprawling across a huge area of this far-flung archipelago, Typhoon Haiyan delivered a crippling blow to this country’s midsection. Disorder and looting over the weekend compounded the destruction.

President Benigno S. Aquino III declared a “state of calamity” in provinces encompassing islands across the breadth of the Philippines. The declaration is devised to release emergency funds from the national coffers.

But those coffers have already been depleted this year by a series of other natural disasters, most notably an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2 that also struck the middle of the country four weeks ago.

The first and most vocal city to cry for help over the weekend was Tacloban on LeyteIsland, which was also one of the first places hit by the typhoon, called Yolanda in the Philippines. In many other communities along the storm’s track, virtually all communications were cut off.

The typhoon left Tacloban in ruins, as a storm surge as high as 13 feet overwhelmed its streets, with reports from the scene saying that most of the houses had been damaged or destroyed in the city of 220,000. More than 300 bodies have already been recovered, said Tecson John S. Lim, the city administrator, adding that the toll could reach 10,000 in Tacloban alone.

Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for the website, said that the storm surge appeared to have caused many of the deaths. Surges are typical for Atlantic hurricanes, Mr. Masters said, but damage from storms in the Philippines is usually caused by flash flooding because of the mountainous terrain.

But the typhoon moved quickly, up to 25 miles per hour, Mr. Masters said, negating the torrential downpours. The powerful typhoon pushed huge amounts of the seawater onshore in low-lying areas, some only 10 feet above sea level.

Mr. Aquino arrived on Sunday in Tacloban to meet with victims of the storm and to coordinate rescue and cleanup efforts. His defense secretary, Voltaire Gazmin, described a chaotic scene there.

“There is no power, no water, nothing,” Mr. Gazmin said. “People are desperate. They’re looting.”

Lynette Lim, a spokeswoman for Save the Children, weathered the storm in a local government office in Tacloban, leaving the city on a military aircraft Sunday morning. She said that even schools, gymnasiums and other sites designated by the local government as evacuation centers had failed to hold up against the powerful winds.

“The roofs had been ripped off, the windows had shattered, and sometimes the ceilings had caved in,” Ms. Lim said in a telephone interview from Manila.

Poor neighborhoods fared especially badly, with virtually no structures left standing except a few government buildings. Looting began by midday on Saturday, with no police officers in sight then or even on Sunday morning, Ms. Lim said. “Everything that could be looted, was,” she said, adding that pharmacies and grocery stores had been picked clean.

The lack of clear information from official sources about the extent of the damage raised the possibility that other areas could have been hit just as badly as Tacloban, where rescue efforts were being concentrated.

News reports from Tacloban told of how officials were unable to get an accurate assessment of the fatalities because law enforcement and government personnel could not be found after the storm, with Tacloban’s mayor, Alfred S. Romualdez, “holding on to his roof” before being rescued, according to The Philippine Daily Inquirer.

On Sunday, the typhoon began turning its deadly force toward central and northern Vietnam, where more than 500,000 people were evacuated even as meteorologists said the storm had begun weakening from the sustained winds of 190 miles per hour that it brought to the Philippines. But as it neared the mainland, it turned northward, its eye skirting the Vietnamese coastline.