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By Eric Baculinao, F. Brinley Bruton and Alexander Smith, NBC News

MAGALLAN, Philippines - Hungry survivors searched the wreckage of their typhoon-hit communities five days after the most violent storm known to have hit land tore through the central Philippines.

“We are not looters, what we were looking for is food,” one desperate man said as he searched the remains of a food warehouse in the fishing village of Magallan on the hard-hit island of Leyte.

Some eight soldiers in the back of a military truck appeared to ignore residents clambering out of the rubble carrying canned food, bags of rice and bottles of water. And in a nearby checkpoint, soldiers waved through residents carrying bags of rice.

While the government deployed the military after reports of looting, some officials seemed to be taking a tolerant view toward those taking food.  

The mayor of Tacloban, a city of some 220,000 flattened by 235 mph winds and tsunami-like storm surges, said it did not surprise him that desperation had sparked violence.

“You have to understand that people here show … some violent actions because they're hungry, because they're thirsty,” Mayor Alfred Romualdez said. “It's not because they want to harm anybody.”

Most of Tacloban's stores remained closed and malls and shops have been stripped of food and water. 

Desperate survivors had been breaking into fast-food shops and destroying ATM machines throughout the disaster zone, according to Philippine broadcaster GMA News.

The official death toll from the disaster stood at 1,774 on Tuesday. Officials have warned that this number could reach as high as 10,000, but President Benigno Aquino said Tuesday the actual figure was closer to 2,000 or 2,500.

"Ten thousand, I think, is too much," he told CNN. "There was emotional drama involved with that particular estimate." 

More than 9 million people have been affected across a large swath of the country, and many made homeless.

And it wasn’t only residents who were struggling to stay alive in the midst of disaster. Government officials were among dead and missing, according to Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas.  

Some officials were simply too grief-stricken to show up for work, he said, adding that just 20 of Tacloban’s 293 police officers had shown up for duty.

Philippine Army Captain Ruben Guinolbay told Reuters in Tacloban that the only branch of government working in the ruined city was the military.

"That is not good,” he said. “We are not supposed to take over government."

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the government would have difficulty enforcing the law in some areas, according to GMA News.

“There's a lot of sensitivities involved here,” she said. “Application of laws should thus be tempered with compassion, mercy or liberality.”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. NBC News' F. Brinley Bruton and Alexander Smith reported from London.

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