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TACLOBAN, Philippines (Reuters) - A U.S. aircraft carrier set sail for the Philippines on Tuesday to accelerate relief efforts after a typhoon killed an estimated 10,000 people in one coastal city alone, with fears the toll could rise sharply as rescuers reach hundreds of isolated towns and villages.
The nuclear-powered USS George Washington, carrying about 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft, was joined by four other U.S. Navy ships and should arrive in two to three days, the Pentagon said.
"The weather is pretty bad out there, so we are limited by seas and wind," Captain Thomas Disy, commander of the USS Antietam, a missile cruiser that's part of the carrier group, told reporters in Hong Kong. "But we are going to be going as fast as we possibly can."
Philippine officials have been overwhelmed by Super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest on record, which tore through the central Philippines on Friday and flattened Tacloban, coastal capital of Leyte province where officials fear 10,000 people died, many drowning in a tsunami-like wall of seawater.
Relief supplies poured into Tacloban along roads flanked with uncollected corpses and canyons of debris as the rain fell again. Rescue workers scrambled to reach other towns and villages still cut off, which could reveal the full extent of the casualties and devastation.
"There are hundreds of other towns and villages stretched over thousands of kilometres that were in the path of the typhoon and with which all communication has been cut," said Natasha Reyes, emergency coordinator in the Philippines at Médecins Sans Frontières.
"No one knows what the situation is like in these more rural and remote places, and it's going to be some time before we have a full picture."
She described the devastation as unprecedented for the Philippines, a disaster-prone archipelago of more than 7,000 islands that sees about 20 typhoons a year, likening the storm to "a massive earthquake followed by huge floods".
About 660,000 people have been displaced and many have no access to food, water or medicine, the United Nations said.
Britain is also sending a navy warship with equipment to make drinking water from seawater and a military transport aircraft. The HMS Daring left Singapore and expects to arrive in two or three days.
President Benigno Aquino declared a state of national calamity and deployed hundreds of soldiers in Tacloban, a once-vibrant port city of 220,000 that's now a corpse-choked wasteland without any sign of a government, as city and hospital workers focus on saving their families and securing food.
"Basically, the only branch of government that is working here is the military," Philippine Army Major Ruben Guinolbay told Reuters in Tacloban. "That is not good. We are not supposed to take over government."
Tacloban's government was wiped out by the storm, said Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas. Officials were dead, missing or too overcome with grief to work. Of the city's 293 policemen, only 20 had shown up for duty, he said.
"Today, we have stabilised the situation. There are no longer reports of looting. The food supply is coming in. Up to 50,000 food packs are coming in every day, with each pack able to feed up to a family of five for three days," he said.
Corazon Soliman, Secretary of the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development, said aid had reached a third of Tacloban's 45,000 families. Most of its stores remain closed - either destroyed or shut after widespread looting.
"Those that opened saw their goods wiped out of their shelves right away," Soliman said.
The official death toll stood at 1,774 on Tuesday, though authorities say they expect that to rise markedly and fear estimates of 10,000 dead might be low.
Two Philippine Air Force C 130 cargo planes landed at Tacloban airport early on Tuesday, but unloaded more soldiers than relief supplies. Among dozens of troops was a unit of Special Forces, underscoring concerns about civil disorder.
The Special Forces immediately deployed at the airport to hold back angry and desperate families waiting in heavy rain in the hope of boarding the planes returning to Manila.
"Get back! Get back in the building!" shouted air force officials through megaphones, gesturing the crowds back inside the wrecked terminal. Many had walked for hours from their destroyed homes, carrying meagre possessions.
The sick, infants and the elderly were taken on board first. Pale-faced babies were passed over the crowd and carried on with several injured people. Many people wept and begged officials to let them on.
Residents told terrifying accounts of being swept away by a surge of water in city hopelessly unprepared for power of Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda.
Some stayed behind to protect their property, including Marivel Saraza, 39, who moved her six children further inland before Haiyan struck, but stayed behind to look after her home only a stone's throw from the sea.
She ended up battling through chest-high water to reach higher ground, while the storm surge destroyed her two-storey concrete home.
"My house just dissolved in the water," she said.
Saraza now struggles to feed her children. The government gave her 2 kg (4.4 lb) of rice and a single can of sardines - barely enough for a family meal - so her husband foraged for fruit further inland. But trees have been combed flat by winds of 314 kph (195 mph) and rice fields inundated with salt water.
Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said the economic damage in the coconut- and rice-growing region would likely shave 1 percentage point off of economic growth in 2014.
"Fixation over numbers at this stage is not going to be useful," Purisima, the top finance ministry official, told reporters. "I was overwhelmed by the pictures, not the numbers."
The overall financial cost of the destruction is harder to immediately assess. Initial estimates varied widely, with a report from German-based CEDIM Forensic Disaster Analysis putting the total at $8 billion to $19 billion.
International relief efforts have begun to gather pace, with dozens of countries and organisations pledging tens of millions of dollars in aid. U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos, who has travelled to the Philippines, released $25 million for aid relief on Monday from the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund.
Rescuers have yet to reach remote parts of the coast, such as Guiuan, a city of 40,000 people that was largely destroyed.
"We don't need aerial surveys. It won't help the people of Guiuan," one resident posted on the Armed Forces Facebook page. "You've already done an aerial survey and you've seen the extent of the damage, seen the devastation that Yolanda brought... The people are desperate, hungry and feeling dejected. WE ARE CRYING FOR HELP!!!"
The typhoon also levelled Basey, a seaside town in Samar province about 10 km (6 miles) across a bay from Tacloban. About 2,000 people were missing in Basey, its governor said.
Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco and Karen Lema in Manila, Phil Stewart in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Belinda Goldsmith in London and Greg Torode in Hong Kong; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Nick Macfie