TACLOBAN, Philippines — Days after the super-typhoon Haiyan roared ashore here and laid waste to the Philippine island of Leyte, the roads remain blocked, the airports closed, the ferries aren't running — and a public health crisis is unfolding.
In order to reach the devastated city of Tacloban, a provincial capital, to witness firsthand the desperate medical situation, we are forced to go by helicopter. As we travel by air, we see the stunning devastation.
Mountainsides look like a deforestation project, trees stripped bare. In the farming areas, everything is flooded.
The national disaster agency said Tuesday morning that it had confirmed 1,774 deaths, with 2,784 other people confirmed injured, but authorities aid workers and emergency officials say that there had been no contact at all with some areas hit by the storm.
When we make our way to the Divine World Hospital, it is officially closed for business due to heavy damage from the storm — but people still come for help.
Dr. Francis Visto, who rode out the fierce storm at the hospital and has remained there since, is scrambling to save patients as well as protect vital medical supplies.
“We tried to salvage what was left in the pharmacy and the emergency room,” Visto said.
The lobby is now a treatment area. But with just bandages and antiseptic left, doctors and nurses can't handle much more than simple cuts and abrasions.
Amid the desperate tumult at the hospital, one woman arrives in labor. She takes deep breaths while sitting in a plastic chair.
The hospital staff continues working on little sleep — and without power for lights or refrigeration. There is no security, here, either.
All across the city, food is scare as is clean water and sanitary facilities. The situation is so desperate, mobs attacked trucks loaded with food, tents and water on Tanauan bridge in Leyte, Philippines Red Cross chairman Richard Gordon said.
The conditions are setting the stage for a public health nightmare.
Dysentery, an intestinal infection that can cause dehydration, severe illness and even death in young children, looms as a danger. Some cases have already been reported.
“We have no potable water source here,” said Visto, adding that most patients come to the hospital because they've lost their homes.
The overwhelmed hospital staff is haunted by the typhoon victims they couldn't help.
"We were out of resources,” Visto said. “We tried our best but these are difficult times. We did our best to counsel them and help them understand that this is a calamity. Even as doctors we stayed and did not go to our families. We stayed with the patients "
Some patients who underwent operations have to be sent home because a lack of medicine. Patients who died are moved to a makeshift morgue.
“They were actually inpatients and when the power was out" Visto said. "The water was out and the was no more medication because our pharmacy was destroyed."
Maria Elnos, a nurse at Tacloban's main hospital, was among hundreds pleading unsuccessfully to get on a military C-130 plane late Sunday.
"I lost my house, I lost everything," she told Reuters. " I want to get out. My food supply will run out in two days."
And other people, who came to the hospital hungry and hurting, had to be turned away.
“We say, 'We're sorry,'” Visto said.
Humanitarian relief is on its way to the Philippines where already an estimated 10,000 people have perished because of the typhoon. On Monday, the U.S. pledged $20 million in humanitarian assistance, including food, shelter material and hygiene kits.
The group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — "Doctors without Borders" — said they expected to have a medical team in Tacloban, including two doctors and an orthopedic specialist, on Tuesday.
The group is also dispatching cargo planes from France loaded with tons of water, sanitation and medical supplies to the Philippines. Some of its medical teams are already in place in Cebu.
Tim Shenk, spokesman for MSF, said the teams expects to treat fractures as well as cuts among other injuries. "It is important that people receive treatment as soon as possible to avoid complications and infections," Shenk said.
In addition, the World Health Organization said it was flying more than two dozen health emergency relief experts and emergency health kits to the Philippines as part of it's initial response.
President Benigno S. Aquino III declared a State of National Calamity Monday and said in a statement, “My appeal to you all is: remaining calm, praying, cooperating with, and assisting one another are the things that will help us to rise from this calamity.”
The president said 1.1 billion pesos (more than $83 million) had been approved by the government for victim relief.
Other nations and nongovernmental organization were also supplying humanitarian aid.
Jeff Black of NBC News contributed to this report.
First published November 11 2013, 9:17 PM