MANILA, ORMOC - Philippine President Benigno Aquino has vowed to "stay" in the typhoon-battered center of the country until he is "satisfied" with efforts to help survivors of a devastating November 8 storm.
Aquino made the pledge Sunday as he visited the hard-hit central islands of Samar and Leyte, where thousands of people flocked to ruined churches for weekly prayers. Some gave thanks for surviving Super Typhoon Haiyan, while others prayed for the souls of the thousands of people who were killed.
Sunday services typically are a time of reflection in the Philippines, whose population is 80 percent Roman Catholic. Filipinos have maintained that faith despite repeatedly enduring disasters of biblical proportions.
In its latest casualty report issued Sunday, the Philippine government said the typhoon killed at least 3,974 people and left about 1,200 others missing. Many of them were swept away and drowned in a huge storm surge triggered by one of the strongest cyclones on record.
Photos by Steve Herman
Washington-based Cardinal Theodore McCarrick visited the town of Palo on Leyte island and led a mass for the faithful at a heavily damaged cathedral. Speaking to VOA later in the day in the city of Ormoc, the 83-year-old acknowledged that words of scripture may not be enough for some traumatized people.
"At the beginning everyone is hurting. And they lost so many friends and family," he said. "And they do not know why God is doing this to us. Well, in a real sense, we say it is not that God is doing this to us, [but] he is allowing these things to happen probably for a greater cause."
The Civil Defense Office also estimated that almost four million people have been left homeless.
British-based child development agency Plan International posted a dramatic video of the storm surge on YouTube. Filmed by staff member Nickson Gensis, it shows tsunami-like waves engulfing homes in the coastal town of Hernani on Samar island.
Gensis said he shot the video from the second floor of a building that withstood the impact.
It was not immediate clear where President Aquino would set up camp in the typhoon zone. He has faced growing domestic criticism in recent days for a perceived sluggish response to the storm.
On Sunday, Mr. Aquino made visits to the ruined city of Tacloban on Leyte and the town of Guiuan in Eastern Samar province, which was the first to be hit by the typhoon.
Speaking to local officials in Guiuan, he expressed appreciation for volunteers assisting with the relief work.
"The government can rise up," he said. "There are so many countries helping, that the Philippines will be able to recover. But if every [small town] were to volunteer to help immediately, the process would be easier and faster."
Aquino has made similar trips out of Manila to respond to recent crises.
Last month, Aquino slept overnight in an army tent on the central island of Bohol, where an earthquake killed more than 200 people and left thousands homeless. He also spent several days in the southern city of Zamboanga in September to oversee a military offensive against Muslim rebels who seized parts of the area.
The scope of international aid deliveries in the typhoon-battered Philippines widened Monday as U.S. military helicopters dropped food, water and relief supplies to remote island and mountain communities.
The aircraft carrier USS George Washington is serving as the hub of aid efforts, ferrying out supplies for distribution by aircraft and bringing in hundreds of victims for aid and medical treatment.
On the ground, there are signs that devastated communities are beginning to recover, with some markets reopening and a few gasoline stations starting to pump fuel once again. People are repairing damaged homes or making temporary shelters out of the remains of their old ones.
The U.S. government has announced a further $10 million in aid, bringing its commitment so far to $37 million.
The Philippine government said it delivered about 115,000 food packages to survivors on Saturday, a significant jump from the 45,000 it passed out on Friday.
Overseas Catholic charities also were on the ground in some of the worst-hit communities. Martha Skretteberg of Caritas Norway told VOA her group was coordinating closely with local Catholic churches.
"The people run to the church at the first opportunity in order to get protection, in order to get food, some help," she said.
Hundreds of Philippine domestic workers in Hong Kong used their single day off from work to collect donations of goods and money to send to the disaster area. Many also prayed for the well-being of loved ones in the affected region. Hong Kong is home to about 150,000 Filipinos, most of them employed as domestic workers.
China's foreign ministry said Beijing is ready to send emergency medical teams to the Philippines when "conditions permit." The Chinese government made the offer after its contribution of almost $2 million in typhoon aid prompted critics to draw unflattering comparisons with much larger donations from Western powers.
Chinese-Philippine relations have been tense the past year as each side criticized the other for asserting sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Steve Herman and Michael Lipin contributed to this report from Ormoc, Philippines and Washington.