U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Xavier L. Cannon and members of the Philippine armed forces help civilians displaced by Typhoon Haiyan disembark a C-130 aircraft at Villamor Air Base. (Lance Cpl. Anne K. Henry / Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — The number of American troops helping the relief effort in the typhoon-hit Philippines could triple to more than 1,000 by the end of the week, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Senior Obama administration officials that after a very difficult first few days, they are cautiously optimistic that logistical bottlenecks that have held up large quantities of aid material are easing.
Thousands were killed and about 600,000 people displaced by last week’s powerful storm that struck the central Philippines, and many remain hungry, thirsty and sick. The Southeast Asian nation is a U.S. treaty ally, and Washington is providing $20 million in immediate aid and ships and aircraft to help distribute supplies.
President Obama urged American citizens, too, to contribute, directing them to a White House website with links to groups providing aid. He noted some of the areas hit by the storm are the same places where U.S. and Philippine forces worked together to liberate the islands during World War II.
“Recovering from one of the strongest storms ever recorded will take years,” Obama said in a statement. “But the strength, resilience and faith of the Filipino people are legendary.”
In the hard-hit city of Tacloban, coordination at the airport has improved, and a road to the city that was cut by the storm has opened up, which should accelerate the distribution of relief supplies, said the officials, who briefed reporters about the American response to the disaster. The spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the administration.
“For the first few days, we were fully reliant on the airport for our only hub for getting anything into that town,” said one official. “It was a lot like trying to squeeze an orange through a straw. We are now getting more and bigger straws.”
The first airlift of hygiene kits and plastic sheeting from the U.S. Agency for International Development was distributed Wednesday to help 10,000 families, and another consignment is due to arrive in the capital Manila Thursday. The first shipment of U.S. food aid is expected to be distributed by the U.N. World Food Program in the next day or so.
The U.S. is using C-130 transport planes and Osprey helicopters to transport aid, which is now reaching out to coastal villages. The transport planes have evacuated about 800 victims of the disaster from Tacloban to Manila. Unmanned aircraft deployed from Guam have also provided overhead reconnaissance to help in damage assessment.
U.S. ships, including the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, are heading toward the area to expand search-and-rescue operations, provide medical care and a platform for helicopters to move supplies to remote areas, the White House said. The carrier and three escort ships are expected to arrive off the coast of the Philippines on Thursday evening, and several U.S. warships and surveillance aircraft are already there.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, Adm. Harry Harris, ordered the activation of the USNS Mercy hospital ship, so that it can begin preparations to go to the Philippines if ordered. The USNS Mercy is in San Diego and could be underway in the next several days, but it would not reach the Philippines until sometime in December.
Just over 300 U.S. military personnel are currently in the Philippines. The U.S. is still assessing the size of deployment that will be needed to help the relief effort, but more U.S. Marines should depart soon from Okinawa, Japan, which could bring the total number of troops to more than 1,000 by the end of the week.
The U.S. military is also helping transport Philippine security forces to enforce a curfew and restore order to the typhoon-hit region, where violence and armed looting has occurred because of lack of basic supplies. The U.S. officials said maintenance of security is the responsibility of the Philippine authorities, and the situation is improving.