Huge waves brought about by Typhoon Haiyan hit the shoreline in Legazpi city, about 325 miles south of Manila, Philippines, on Friday. Nelson Salting, AP
MANILA - As many as 10,000 people may have died when one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded destroyed entire villages and devastated cities with huge waves and winds of nearly 150 mph.
On Sunday, the Philippines were still trying to comprehend the destruction that Typhoon Haiyan brought to this string of islands in the Pacific. Corpses hung from tree branches and were scattered along sidewalks and among flattened buildings. People raided grocery stores and gas stations in search of food, fuel and water.
A weakened but still powerful Haiyan was churning through the South China Sea toward Vietnam, which was evacuating tens of thousands of people.
In the Philippines, authorities were still trying to get to islands that no one had been able to communicate with since the typhoon struck Friday. But those reached revealed immense damage to homes, roads and buildings.
Frantic relatives crowded into the Villamor Airbase in Manila to wait for transport planes that were rescuing people from at least six of the archipelago's more than 7,000 islands that were hit hardest.
Maritess Tayag, in her 40s, and her sister, Maryann, 29, arrived at the airport dizzy, shaken and thirsty but elated to be alive. They came from their home in Tacloban on the island of Leyte, one of the hardest hit by the typhoon.
"I was in the house - trapped in my room. The water is up to my nose - I cannot breathe anymore. I am trying to save myself," said Maritess Tayag, describing the early hours of Saturday when ceaseless wind drove dark seawater mixed with foul-smelling water from canals higher and higher into their homes.
Her brother was in the house, too, trying to keep his head above the rising water, she said. But, "It reached up over his head. Then a big wave of fast flood reached up higher."
"I feel I would die at this moment because I can't - I don't know what I will do," she said, crying.
"I cry a lot of cry shouting 'Mom!' Open, open please open help us somebody."
Her younger sister and sister-in-law made it to the roof. Her brother and mother did not, she said, and both are probably dead.
Maryann described their town as looking as if it was a "World War II city" and said everyone was trying to flee in fear after the typhoon winds ended Saturday.
"It was almost a stampede at the airport in Tacloban," she said. "Everyone was trying to get on the plane. It's really, really terrible."
It was not until Sunday that authorities communicated with Leyte. The sisters said there was no power or phone service. They said they saw looting everywhere. Food and water are almost non-existent, they said.
"It's all washed out ... including the hospitals and malls, by the strong winds and floods that came," Maritess said in a quivering voice.
"The hardest thing is ... seeing you mother floating in the flood and you don't know what to do. You just see there and the only thing is have to save yourself," Maryann said. "I could not save her because she drowned already, and it was not just water from the sea but mixed with dirty water - color black, like came from river and smell like canal."
Regional police chief Elmer Soria said he was briefed by Leyte provincial Gov. Dominic Petilla late Saturday and told there were about 10,000 deaths on the island, mostly by drowning and from collapsed buildings. The governor's figure was based on reports from village officials in areas where Typhoon Haiyan slammed Friday.
Tacloban city administrator Tecson Lim said that the death toll in the city "could go up to 10,000." A mass burial was planned Sunday in Palo town near Tacloban.
If the typhoon death toll is confirmed, it would be the deadliest natural catastrophe on record in the Philippines, topping both the 5,100 killed by Tropical Storm Thelma in November 1991 and the 5,791 killed after a magnitude-7.9 earthquake triggered a tsunami in the Moro Gulf in the southern Philippines in 1976.
President Benigno Aquino III flew around Leyte by helicopter on Sunday and landed in Tacloban to get a firsthand look at the disaster. He said the government's priority was to restore power and communications in isolated areas and deliver relief and medical assistance to victims.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino was "speechless" when he told him of the devastation the typhoon had wrought in Tacloban.
"I told him all systems are down," Gazmin said. "There is no power, no water, nothing. People are desperate. They're looting."