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Philippine city overwhelmed by task of burying typhoon victims

In Tacloban, the Philippine city hit hardest by Typhoon Haiyan, hundreds of bodies are hastily buried in a long trench. More corpses lie in the streets or still covered by rubble.

By Alexandra Zavis

9:04 PM EST, November 16, 2013

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TACLOBAN, Philippines — In a hilltop cemetery, a truck stacked high with body bags backed up to a yawning trench. With no time for ceremony, police and firefighters wearing face masks and plastic gloves unloaded the bags and placed them in a communal grave.

A week after one of the strongest typhoons on record swept through the central Philippines, the task of burying the dead remains in full gear here in Tacloban, the hardest-hit city.

Some bodies still lie in the streets. Other corpses remain buried under towering piles of rubble.

PHOTOS: Typhoon Haiyan slams Philippines

Overwhelmed by the scale of devastation, government officials here took several days to assemble the workers and equipment necessary to undertake the grim task. Government structures were themselves decimated by the typhoon known internationally as Haiyan and in the Philippines as Yolanda. Public employees were among the victims, and some remain unaccounted for.

To avoid the spread of disease, the priority now is to bury the dead as soon as possible, even though many families may never know for sure what happened to their loved ones.

"The families usually accept the situation," said Senior Supt. Emmanuel Aranas, deputy director of a police crime lab. "There are so many tragedies here."

By Saturday afternoon, 780 bodies had been retrieved in Tacloban and ferried up the hill for burial, authorities said. Many more bodies are still expected to be located and buried.

The official death toll nationwide stood at 3,633, with 1,179 people still missing. But the figures have been a subject of controversy.

A provincial police official who last weekend said the final number would probably climb to about 10,000 was removed from his post Thursday. International aid officials have endorsed the estimate, but President Benigno Aquino III and other Philippine officials say it is exaggerated.

In all, more than 11 million people were estimated to be affected by Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms ever to reach shore, according to the United Nations. As it rushed through six central Philippine islands, it packed sustained winds of 147 mph and gusts of 170 mph, comparable to a strong Category 4 hurricane in the U.S.

The mega-storm also struck central and northern Vietnam, where winds authorities had evacuated more than 500,000 people.

One reason for the uncertain death toll in the Philippines is that many hard-hit villages remain out of reach because of debris-clogged roads, leaving the dead unburied and uncounted.

Most of the deaths occurred on the islands of Leyte and Samar. Tacloban, the Leyte provincial capital, was hit especially hard because of massive storm surges. Many victims were swept away in the churning water or drowned in their homes.

Across the battered city of 220,000, residents continue to pick their way across fields of debris, jostling for aid at a growing number of distribution centers, or busying themselves with makeshift home repairs. The stench Saturday was overpowering. Some wore masks to block out the putrid smell. Others wrapped scarves around their faces or covered their noses with their shirts.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas told reporters during a visit to Tacloban that the city had just eight functioning trucks. Two of them are being used to collect cadavers, which have decayed rapidly in the stifling heat, said Dr. Bubi Arce, who is overseeing the effort.

Protective clothing and sufficient body bags had to be assembled with the help of the Department of Health, armed forces and Philippine Red Cross.

"We were literally picking up bodies with our bare hands," Arce said.

Before the bodies are buried in the mass grave, basic information has been recorded, including gender, where each was found and what the victim was wearing. Also, bodies have been searched for identifying information, photographs and fingerprints were taken, and area residents questioned so families can be informed, said Aranas, the police crime lab official.

Yet with each passing day, he said, identifying features are deteriorating and there isn't time or resources for sophisticated forensic work.

By the end of the day Saturday, body bags lined most of a more than 100-yard-long trench. Organizers wanted to dig another one, but the backhoe had stopped working.

Police officers and firefighters, some of them wearing gas masks, said little as they labored, until a tiny black bag was lifted from the truck.

"Baby, baby," the call went out.

The smell was overpowering. A firefighter leaned over and retched.

"Hard time," said a police officer, barely able to speak as he stepped to one side to catch his breath. "So many."

And still, the bodies keep coming.

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.