By Andrew R.C. Marshall and Manuel Mogato
TACLOBAN, Philippines (Reuters) - The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan's rampage through the Philippines is closer to 2,000 or 2,500 than the 10,000 previously estimated, President Benigno Aquino said on Tuesday as U.S. and British warships headed toward his nation to help with relief efforts.
"Ten thousand, I think, is too much," Aquino told CNN in an interview. "There was emotional drama involved with that particular estimate."
Aquino said the government was still gathering information from various storm-struck areas and the death toll may rise.
"We're hoping to be able to contact something like 29 municipalities left wherein we still have to establish their numbers, especially for the missing, but so far 2,000, about 2,500, is the number we are working on as far as deaths are concerned," he said.
The official death toll stood at 1,774 on Tuesday.
Philippine officials have been overwhelmed by Haiyan, one of the strongest typhoons on record, which tore through the central Philippines on Friday and flattened Tacloban, coastal capital of Leyte province where officials had feared 10,000 people died, many drowning in a tsunami-like wall of seawater.
Aquino revealed the lower estimated toll after the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington set sail for the Philippines carrying about 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft to accelerate relief efforts. It was joined by four other U.S. Navy ships and should arrive in two to three days, the Pentagon said.
"The weather is pretty bad out there, so we are limited by seas and wind," Captain Thomas Disy, commander of the USS Antietam, a missile cruiser that is part of the carrier group, said in Hong Kong. "But we are going to be going as fast as we possibly can."
Relief supplies poured into Tacloban along roads flanked with corpses and canyons of debris as the rain fell again. Rescue workers scrambled to reach other towns and villages still cut off, which could reveal the full extent of the casualties and devastation.
"There are hundreds of other towns and villages stretched over thousands of kilometers that were in the path of the typhoon and with which all communication has been cut," said Natasha Reyes, emergency coordinator in the Philippines at Médecins Sans Frontières.
"No one knows what the situation is like in these more rural and remote places, and it's going to be some time before we have a full picture."
She described the devastation as unprecedented for the Philippines, a disaster-prone archipelago of more than 7,000 islands that sees about 20 typhoons a year, likening the storm to "a massive earthquake followed by huge floods."
About 660,000 people have been displaced and many have no access to food, water or medicine, the United Nations said.
Britain is also sending a navy warship with equipment to make drinking water from seawater and a military transport aircraft. The HMS Daring left Singapore and expects to arrive in two or three days.
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said the development lender was considering boosting its conditional cash transfer program for the Philippines in the wake of the storm.
Aquino has declared a state of national calamity and deployed hundreds of soldiers in Tacloban, a once-vibrant port city of 220,000 that is now a wasteland without any sign of a government, as city and hospital workers focus on saving their families and securing food.
"Basically, the only branch of government that is working here is the military," Philippine Army Major Ruben Guinolbay told Reuters in Tacloban. "That is not good. We are not supposed to take over government."
Tacloban's government was wiped out by the storm, said Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas. Officials were dead, missing or too overcome with grief to work. Of the city's 293 police officers, only 20 had shown up for duty, he said.
"Today, we have stabilized the situation. There are no longer reports of looting. The food supply is coming in. Up to 50,000 food packs are coming in every day, with each pack able to feed up to a family of five for three days," he said.
Corazon Soliman, Secretary of the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development, said aid had reached a third of Tacloban's 45,000 families. Most of its stores remain closed - either destroyed or shut after widespread looting.
"Those that opened saw their goods wiped out of their shelves right away," Soliman said.
CHAOS AT AIRPORT
Two Philippine Air Force C-130 cargo planes landed at Tacloban airport early on Tuesday, but unloaded more soldiers than relief supplies. Among dozens of troops was a unit of Special Forces, underscoring concerns about civil disorder.
The Special Forces immediately deployed at the airport to hold back angry and desperate families waiting in heavy rain in the hope of boarding the planes returning to Manila.
"Get back! Get back in the building!" shouted air force officials through megaphones, gesturing the crowds back inside the wrecked terminal. Many had walked for hours from their destroyed homes, carrying meager possessions.
The sick, infants and the elderly were taken on board first. Pale-faced babies were passed over the crowd and carried on with several injured people. Many people wept and begged officials to let them on.
Residents told terrifying accounts of being swept away by a surge of water in city hopelessly unprepared for power of Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda.
Some stayed behind to protect their property, including Marivel Saraza, 39, who moved her six children farther inland before Haiyan struck, but stayed behind to look after her home only a stone's throw from the sea.
She ended up battling through chest-high water to reach higher ground, while the storm surge destroyed her two-storey concrete home.
"My house just dissolved in the water," she said.
Saraza now struggles to feed her children. The government gave her 2 kg (4.4 lb) of rice and a single can of sardines - barely enough for a family meal - so her husband foraged for fruit farther inland. But trees have been flattened by winds of 314 kph (195 mph) and rice fields inundated with salt water.
RELIEF EFFORTS PICKING UP
Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said the economic damage in the coconut- and rice-growing region would likely shave 1 percentage point off of economic growth in 2014.
"Fixation over numbers at this stage is not going to be useful," Purisima, the top finance ministry official, told reporters. "I was overwhelmed by the pictures, not the numbers."
The overall financial cost of the destruction was harder to assess. Initial estimates varied widely, with a report from German-based CEDIM Forensic Disaster Analysis putting the total at $8 billion to $19 billion.
International relief efforts have begun to gather pace, with dozens of countries and organizations pledging tens of millions of dollars in aid. U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos, who has traveled to the Philippines, released $25 million for aid relief on Monday from the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund.
Rescuers have yet to reach remote parts of the coast, such as Guiuan, a city of 40,000 people that was largely destroyed.
"We don't need aerial surveys. It won't help the people of Guiuan," one resident posted on the Armed Forces Facebook page. "You've already done an aerial survey and you've seen the extent of the damage, seen the devastation that Yolanda brought... The people are desperate, hungry and feeling dejected. WE ARE CRYING FOR HELP!!!"
The typhoon also leveled Basey, a seaside town in Samar province about 10 km (6 miles) across a bay from Tacloban. About 2,000 people were missing in Basey, its governor said.
(Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco and Karen Lema in Manila; Phil Stewart and Susan Heavey in Washington; Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Belinda Goldsmith in London and Greg Torode in Hong Kong; Writing by Jason Szep and Jim Loney; Editing by Nick Macfie and Doina Chiacu)