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'Unlikely we'll ever know': A grim, chaotic count after Philippines typhoon

People cover their noses from the stench as they ride past a mass grave with more than 700 bodies of victims of Typhoon Haiyan just outside Tacloban, the Philippines, on Monday.
People cover their noses from the stench as they ride past a mass grave with more than 700 bodies of victims of Typhoon Haiyan just outside Tacloban, the Philippines, on Monday.Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Counting the dead in the Philippines is grim, slow, and frustratingly inexact work.

Since the monster Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the scattered Pacific islands a week and a half ago, the toll has fluctuated wildly — a few hundred at first, then a nightmarish estimate of 10,000, then a smaller figure given by the president that quickly proved too optimistic.

On Tuesday, the Philippine government put the count at just under 3,982, but no one seemed to believe it would stay there. The United Nations warned that crews have still not reached some remote islands.

“It is unlikely we’ll ever know the exact total,” even after a final and official figure is reached, Steven Rood, the Philippines country representative for the nonprofit Asia Foundation, said by email from Manila.

Casualty reporting after any natural disaster is tricky, subject to logistical challenges that grow with the severity of the disaster itself — downed power lines, telephone outages.

In the Philippines, the problem was compounded by a highly decentralized government and a communications network that relies heavily on mobile technology, Rood said. Radio backup, thought to be unnecessary, was abandoned by civilian offices years ago.

Adding to the chaos was the myth — not unique to the Philippines — that cadavers pose such a health risk that they must be buried before before they can be identified, he said. In fact, health officials say, human remains pose a relatively minor risk of infection and contamination after a disaster.

On the islands, the result was statistical confusion that made it harder for the world to get a grip on just how hard the islands had been hit.

On the day after the storm, a regional police director said that the death toll could climb to 10,000. An administrator in the devastated city of Tacloban said that the count could reach 10,000 there alone.

Then last week, President Benigno Aquino predicted that the toll would come out to 2,000 to 2,500. He said that the more dire estimates might have been influenced by “emotional drama.”

The police official who had cited the figure of 10,000 was relieved of his duties, according to the Philippines News Agency.

By last Thursday, it became clear that the president’s figure was too low. The United Nations, which said it was relying on figures from the government of the Philippines, put the count at 4,460. A day later, the U.N. pulled back to 3,600.

John Ging, director of the operational division at the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, apologized for the discrepancy and said that the inaccurate figure was based on estimates, not confirmed deaths.

The mayor of Tacloban also apologized Friday after a figure, marked up on a simple whiteboard, estimated the dead in that city at 4,000. The mayor said the figure was for the whole central Philippines.

Rood, from the Asia Foundation, summarized the confusion as “the faulty flow of data from damaged local governments through weak or nonsexistent channels.”

President Aquino, he said, had insisted on reliable, systematic data, not anecdotes to plan the response — but should have hedged his figures by pointing out that only some local governments had reported their dead.

The count by the Philippine government includes cadavers that have been identified or that police or government investigators have tried to identify, Teodoro J. Herbosa, the undersecretary of health, told NBC News.

“The government is very careful in terms of declaring the true numbers,” he said.

The counting is especially slow “in a place like what happened here, wherein all the police forces were gone and this was not the local police, this was police from outside that actually are counting,” he said.

Simply reaching the dead, to say nothing of counting and reporting their numbers, has proved an enormous challenge since the typhoon struck.

Roads and airports have been all but destroyed. Power is still intermittent in the hardest-hit areas. Food and fuel are scarce. Telephone lines are down, and mobile phone coverage is spotty.

In some parts of the country, where bloated bodies lie beside swamps and streets, counting the dead has simply not been a priority because survival itself is a more urgent task.

Alfred Romualdez, the Tacloban mayor, said that some people may have been swept to sea, their bodies lost forever to the storm. One whole neighborhood, population 10,000 to 12,000, was simply deserted, he said.

Where there are bodies left to count, the work is gruesome.

In the shattered city of Tacloban, three morticians struggled in the evening sun Monday to identify dozens of decomposing bodies at a mass grave. They worked at a pace of 15 bodies per hour.

“There’s just a few of us right now. The thing is, we just want to start a system,” one of the pathologists, Raquel Del Rosario-Fortun, told Reuters. “The idea is to try and examine all the bodies here, and not just dump them in a common grave.”

Besides the dead, almost 13 million people have been affected in some way by the storm, according to the U.N. That includes 4 million people who have been displaced. More than 1 million houses have been damaged. A U.N. spokeswoman on Monday compared the scale of the response to trying to help “the whole of Belgium.”

Rood said that the Philippine government was overwhelmed in the early days after the typhoon, “as most governments would have been.” Now, he said, the government has a grip on the situation.

That does not make the counting any easier. President Aquino on Monday visited the town of Palo, near Tacloban, where generators light the streets. He said that he was trying to keep spirits high to help the relief effort.

But the storm’s toll was so devastating, he said, that “one is tempted to despair.”

Andy Eckardt of NBC News contributed to this report. Reuters also contributed.