Vietnam has shifted 300,000 residents into storm shelters as it braces for the arrival of Typhoon Haiyan. In its wake, high casualties are feared in the central Philippines, with the death toll exceeding 1,000.
The Philippine Red Cross said that on Saturday alone in the archipelago's central city of Tacloban "more than 1,000 bodies" had been sighted in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. A UN official compared the disaster to Asia's 2004 tsunami.
Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the head of a UN disaster assessment team, said as he arrived in the city of 220,000 on the eastern island of Leyte that the storm's impact was "massive."
"The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami," Stampa said, referring to the 2004 earthquake-induced tsunami triggered off Sumatra.
Haiyan tracked across the South China Sea - west of the Philippines - late Saturday towards Vietnam, with winds peaking at 185 kilometers per hour.
Three-meter storm surges
The secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross, Gwendolyn Pang, said that "more than 1,000 bodies" had been seen floating in Tacloban, after seawater storm surges of three to four meters (10 - 13 feet) on Friday.
Tacloban airport manager Efren Nagrama said: "It was like a tsunami … I held on to a pole for about an hour as rain, seawater and wind swept through the airport. Some of my staff survived by clinging to trees."
On Saturday, dazed survivors wandered among the debris of destroyed homes and fallen trees. Ferry services and airports remained closed. Television footage showed cars piled atop each other.
A cabinet member dispatched by President Benigno Aquino, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla, said there were similar scenes across Leyte province.
Visiting the fishing village of Palo, Petilla said alone in that area "hundreds of people" had died.
"They all looked the same. The roofs were off all the buildings," he said.
Because the category 5 "super storm" knocked out power and communications in Leyte, which is home to 1.7 million people, officials said it could take some time to finalize the toll.
News was awaited from Guiuan, a fishing town of 40,000 on the island of Samar, which was the first area hit by Haiyan as it swept in from the Pacific Ocean on Friday, packing winds of 315 kilometers (195 miles) per hour.
Red Cross chief Pang said relief workers were also trying to reach Panay Island in Capiz province, some 200 kilometers to the west, where houses had been "flattened to the ground."
Radio reports said at least two people were killed on the tourist destination island of Cebu, three in Iloilo province and another three in Coron town in southwestern Palawan province.
Aquino said he expected the casualty count would be "substantially more," accusing some communities, including Tacloban, of not heeding pre-storm warnings.
A spokesman for the Philippines military, Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala said 15,000 troops were in the disaster zones. Helicopters were flying rescuers to priority areas.
Heading towards Vietnam
Haiyan is expected to make landfall in central Vietnam early Sunday, local time.
Red Cross officials in Vietnam estimate that some 6.5 million people could be affected.
The Vietnamese newspaper Tuoi Tre said 20,000 families were being evacuated in several districts in Da Nang city. More than 200,000 people were being moved out of nearby Quang Ngai province.
Thousands of boats and rescue vehicles are being put on stand by, mainly in central provinces. All schools in Quang Nam and Binh Dinh provinces have been closed, it said.
The newspaper quoted Bui Minh Tang, director of the Central Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting Center: "It can be compared with other strongest storms on the earth such as typhoons Andrew and Katrina in the US, and typhoon Nargis in Myanmar."
ipj/slk (dpa, AFP, Reuters)
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