Updated at 9:43 p.m. Eastern
TACLOBAN, Philippines Relief operations in this typhoon-devastated region of the Philippines picked up pace Wednesday, but still only minimal amounts of water, food and medical supplies were making it to the hardest-hit areas.
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Aviation authorities said two more airports in the region had reopened, allowing for more aid flights.
International agencies and militaries were also speeding up operations to get staff, supplies and equipment in place for what will be a major humanitarian mission.
The damaged airport on Tacloban, a coastal city of 220,000 almost completely destroyed by Friday’s typhoon and coastal surge, has become the major hub for relief work.
A doctor at a makeshift clinic here said supplies of antibiotics and anesthetics arrived Tuesday for the first time.
“Until then, patients had to endure the pain,” said Dr. Victoriano Sambale.
Meanwhile, thousands of victims jammed the damaged airport Tuesday, seeking to be evacuated.
“We need help. Nothing is happening. We haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon,” pleaded a weeping Aristone Balute, an 81-year-old woman who failed to get a flight out of Tacloban for Manila, the capital. Her clothes were soaked from a pouring rain and tears streamed down her face.
The official toll from a national disaster agency rose to 1, 883 on Tuesday. President Benigno Aquino III told CNN in a televised interview that the toll could be closer to 2,000 or 2,500, lower than an earlier estimate from two officials on the ground who said they feared as many as 10,000 might be dead.
“The figure right now I have is about 2,000, but this might still get higher,” Aquino told CNN.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama spoke to Aquino Tuesday morning.
Carney said the president has directed his administration “to mount a swift and coordinated response to save lives and provide assistance to alleviate suffering.”
CBS News reported Tuesday evening that at least two Americans are among the dead. It also reported that about 100 U.S. Marines are already on the ground and as many as 2,000 more are expected. The aircraft carrier George Washington should arrive Thursday.
A team from Medecins Sans Frontieres, complete with medical supplies, arrived in Cebu island on Saturday looking for a flight to Tacloban, but hadn’t left by Tuesday. A spokesman for the group said it was “difficult to tell” when it would be able to leave.
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“We are in contact with the authorities, but the (Tacloban) airport is only for the Philippines military use,” Lee Pik Kwan said in a telephone interview.
Reporting from Tacloban, CBS News correspondent Seth Doane said many bodies still lay uncollected on a side of the road, wrapped in cloth. Increasingly desperate survivors scavenged for food and children begged for water from any passing vehicle.
Doane added that Tacloban’s airport was open but badly damaged. No power means the planes can’t land at night, and aid workers are struggling to get supplies in. That didn’t stop hundreds of survivors who rushed to the ruined airport looking for food. Others lined up hoping to be evacuated. By afternoon the line had stretched three miles long.
At the medics’ intended destination, thousands of typhoon victims were trying to get out. They camped at the airport and ran onto the tarmac when planes came in, surging past a broken iron fence and a few soldiers and police trying to control them. Most didn’t make it aboard.
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An Associated Press reporter drove through the town for around 4 miles Tuesday and saw more than 40 bodies. He saw no evidence of any organized delivery of food, water or medical supplies, though piles of aid have begun to arrive at the airport. Some people were lining up to get water from a hose, presumably from the city supply.
“There is a huge amount that we need to do. We have not been able to get into the remote communities,” U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in Manila. “Even in Tacloban, because of the debris and the difficulties with logistics and so on, we have not been able to get in the level of supply that we would want to. We are going to do as much as we can to bring in more.”
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said relief goods were getting into the city, and the supply should increase in coming days now that the airport and a bridge to the island were open.
“We are not going to leave one person behind – one living person behind,” he said. “We will help, no matter how difficult, no matter how inaccessible.”
Doctors in Tacloban said they were desperate for medicine. Beside the ruined airport tower, at a small makeshift clinic with shattered windows, army and air force medics said they had treated around 1,000 people for cuts, bruises, lacerations and deep wounds.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Air Force Capt. Antonio Tamayo. “We need more medicine. We cannot give anti-tetanus vaccine shots because we have none.”
The longer survivors go without access to clean water, food, shelter and medical help, the greater chance of disease breaking out and people dying as a result of wounds sustained in the storm.
The official death toll from the disaster rose to 1,774 on Tuesday, though authorities have said they expect that to rise markedly. More than 9 million people have been affected across a large swath of the country, many of them made homeless.
Tacloban, a city of about 220,000 people on Leyte island, bore the full force of the winds and the tsunami-like storm surges. Most of the city is in ruins, a tangled mess of destroyed houses, cars and trees. Malls, garages and shops have all been stripped of food and water by hungry residents.
The loss of life appears to be concentrated in Tacloban and surrounding areas, including a portion of Samar island that is separated from Leyte island by a strait. It is possible that other devastated areas are so isolated they have not yet been reached.
In Cebu, to the southwest, the Philippine air force has been sending three C-130s back and forth to Tacloban from dawn to dusk, and had delivered 400,000 pounds of relief supplies by Tuesday, Lt. Col. Marciano Jesus Guevara said. A lack of electricity in Tacloban means planes can’t land there at night.
Doane reported of one mother in Cebu whose home was gone and who wept over her dead child. “We want to go back home,” she said, “but we can’t. And I have no where to bury my child.”
Guevara said the C-130s have transported nearly 3,000 civilians out of the disaster zone, and that the biggest problem in Tacloban is a lack of clean drinking water.
“Water is life,” he said. “If you have water with no food, you’ll survive.”