One of the most powerful typhoons in history is believed to have killed 1,200 people in the Philippines, the Red Cross said yesterday, as rescue workers raced to reach towns devastated by tsunami-like waves.
A day after Typhoon Haiyan churned through the Philippine archipelago, rescue teams were struggling to reach far-flung regions but were hampered by washed-out roads, many choked with debris and fallen trees.
The death toll from the fast-moving storm was expected to rise sharply. The circumference of the typhoon eclipsed the whole country. Haiyan is expected to hit Vietnam this morning.
Among the hardest hit areas was coastal Tacloban in central Leyte province where more than 1,000 people were feared to have been killed as water surges rushed through the city, said Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross.
Video: Super typhoon kills thousands in devastated Philippines
"More than 1,000 bodies were estimated to have been seen floating in Tacloban," she said. "In Samar, about 200 deaths."
At least 138 people were confirmed dead - 118 of which were in Tacloban - but Interior Secretary Max Roxas said it was too early to know how many people had died.
"We expect a very high number of fatalities," Roxas said as he arrived in Tacloban. "The devastation is ... I don't have the words for it. It's really horrific. It's a great human tragedy."
Aside from the ferocious winds, Haiyan generated storm surges that saw waves three metres high swamp coastal towns and race inland.
"The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami," said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, head of the UN Disaster Assessment Co-ordination Team sent to Tacloban, referring to the 2004 earthquake and tsunami.
"This is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumbleweed and the streets are strewn with debris."
The category five "super typhoon" weakened to a category four yesterday, though forecasters said it could strengthen again over the South China Sea en route to Vietnam.
Authorities in Vietnam have started to call back boats and prepare for possible landslides. Nearly 300,000 people were moved to safer areas in two provinces alone. The army has been mobilised to provide emergency relief, with about 170,000 soldiers set to assist people after the typhoon hits.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press