A week after typhoon, relief efforts picking up in the Philippines

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TACLOBAN CITY, Philippines -- Efforts to help survivors of Typhoon Haiyan ramped up even as the Philippines government admitted Friday that the pace was still slow, a week after the storm left thousands dead and nearly 2 million homeless.

Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said in Tacloban City, capital of the worst-hit Leyte province, that trucks carrying supplies had reached 30 of 40 towns in the province.

Workers with chainsaws cut up toppled trees around the city hall, while trucks hauled away bodies and debris. The clearing operations went on late into the night by portable spotlights.

"Our relief effort is progressing, although it's still at a slow pace," Mr. Roxas told reporters. "Every day is better than yesterday. There is nothing fast enough in a situation like this, because so many were affected and infrastructure damaged."

More trucks, relief supplies and workers were on their way to other affected areas, where residents have complained that relief has been slow. "Everybody's pushing faster, faster, faster," deputy presidential spokeswoman Abigail Valte said in Manila. "We need to provide support for about 1.357 million people, and that means putting out 140,000 food packs every day."

U.S. soldiers helped to distribute relief supplies to survivors desperate for food and water. Long queues to receive supplies formed outside Tacloban's city hall and in nearby villages.

Residents, hopeful that they could rebuild, started cleaning whatever structures were left of their houses after the tsunami-like storm surge smashed into Tacloban. "I grew up here, so it's difficult to just leave," said businessman Roger Camtos, 36, cleaning the grills on the windows of his parents' two-story house. The roof was torn off, with only the facade left standing.

Nearby, Agapito Nunez, 49, removed debris, plywood and other dirt from his two-story house and piled it on a mound on the roadside. "I'm watching over the house to make sure that looters will not take any of what was left here," said the father of three, who sent his family to stay with his in-laws in the nearby town of Santa Fe.

The death toll in the disaster remains unclear, with the government putting the count at 3,621, while the United Nations earlier reported that Haiyan had killed 4,460 people. At least 1,140 people were listed as missing.

Eduardo del Rosario, head of the national disaster relief agency, said the government was not understating the death toll but has only been slow in tallying because of the need to validate all figures reported by local officials.

The United Nations clarified Friday that the actual death toll from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines was at about 3,600. John Ging, director of the operational division at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said Thursday's figure of 4,460 was an estimate released by the Philippine government, while the number of verified dead was currently 3,600.

"We've been asked by the Philippine authorities to report consistent with them -- they are not reporting estimates, they are reporting actual numbers," Mr. Ging said.

Damage and production losses due to the disaster, estimated at $674 million, were expected to dampen the country's economic growth in 2013, according to the National Economic and Development Authority. The agency warned that the impact "may linger in 2014 due to reduced production capacity."

"The full-year gross domestic product growth for 2013 could be reduced by 0.3 to 0.8 percentage points, lowering the growth estimates to 6.5 percent to 7 percent," it said. Prior to the disaster, the economy was forecast to expand 7.3 percent in 2013.

Assistance from dozens of international donors has reached nearly $150 million, the government said. President Benigno Aquino has ordered an accounting of all foreign aid to deter the corruption and waste seen after past disasters.

Thousands of survivors have fled to Manila or nearby provinces from the cities and towns laid waste by the storm. "If they want to leave, we will support them," said Ms. Valte, the presidential spokeswoman. "If they want to eventually return, that would be OK, too. We are prepared to support them wherever they will go."

The Philippine Red Cross said it was planning to set up two tent cities in Hilongos in Leyte province, and another in Mandaue City in Cebu province.

"We will get a ship and will evacuate anyone who wants to evacuate," Red Cross chairman Richard Gordon said. "These people need to have dignity and be able to take charge of their lives and be given a chance to rebuild their community."


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