By Aubrey Belford
CABUNGAAN, Philippines (Reuters) - Mobbed by hungry villagers, U.S. military helicopters dropped desperately needed aid into remote areas of the typhoon-ravaged central Philippines, as survivors of the disaster flocked to ruined churches on Sunday to pray for their uncertain future.
The Philippines is facing up to an enormous rebuilding task from Typhoon Haiyan, which killed at least 3,974 people and left 1,186 missing, with many isolated communities yet to receive significant aid despite a massive international relief effort.
Philippine authorities and international aid agencies face a mounting humanitarian crisis, with the number of people displaced by the catastrophe estimated at 4 million, up from 900,000 late last week.
President Benigno Aquino, caught off guard by the scale of the disaster and criticized by some for the sometimes chaotic response, visited affected areas on Sunday. Not for the first time, he sought to deflect blame for the problems onto local authorities whose preparations he said had fallen short.
In Guiuan, a hard-hit coastal town in eastern Samar province, he praised the city mayor for conducting a proper evacuation that had limited deaths to less than 100, saying that was a contrast to other towns.
"In other places, I prefer not to talk about it. As your president, I am not allowed to get angry even if I am already upset. I'll just suffer through it with an acidic stomach," said Aquino. "Until I am satisfied with what I am seeing, I will stay here for a while."
While aid packages have begun to reach more remote areas, much of it carried by helicopters brought by the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, the United Nations said people were still going hungry in some mountainous provinces. It said information about several provinces in the west of the Visayas region remained "limited", with 60 percent of people in towns in the northeast part of Capiz province needing food support.
"I remain concerned about the health and well-being of the millions of men, women and children who are still in desperate need," U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said in a statement.
The risk of skin and respiratory diseases and diarrhoea was very high, with hospital and health centers badly damaged.
"It's raining a lot so everything is wet. The quality of the water is not sufficient," Jean Pletinckx, head of Medecins Sans Frontieres' Haiyan response, told Reuters.
"In Guiuan, the city is completely destroyed. There's nothing left. Everything is broken. The hospital is completely flat."
U.S. AID REACHES REMOTE AREAS
In Cabungaan, a village in the interior of Leyte province's Tanauan district - where as many as 1,200 died - the arrival of a U.S. Seahawk helicopter on Sunday was the first outside help since Haiyan made landfall.
With children in the lead, scores of villagers ran from jury-rigged shanties to greet the helicopter as it settled in a flattened patch of grass. Locals jostled for a view, beaming and yelling "Thank you! Thank you!" as two crew members rushed out aid marked "from the American people."
For the past week, the village's 200-plus residents had been living on one meal a day of "dried fish, sometimes coconuts, not enough rice," said Richel Maballo, 19. Too far from the shore to be hit by the surge of water that devastated the regional capital Tacloban city, the village suffered no deaths.
Back in the air, a member of the aircraft's crew, Jeremy Smith, scribbled in a notebook: "That LZ (landing zone) was tame compared to others where the aircrafts have been mobbed."
The international community has sent or pledged a total of $248 million (10.6 billion pesos) to help 10 million people affected by Haiyan, said the Philippine foreign ministry.
The United States has about 50 ships and aircraft operating in the area, including 10 C130 planes, 12 V-22 Ospreys, Sea Hawk helicopters operating from USS George Washington.
Japan has sent three ships with trucks and engineering equipment, while Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore have sent C130 planes to help deliver relief supplies.
Aquino said he was not satisfied with the slow pace of aid distribution and called for more efficient loading and unloading of relief packs from ports in Luzon and for the urgent restoration of power and communications.
The government estimated damage to infrastructure and agriculture at about 10 billion pesos ($230 million), the bulk of it in the farming sector.
The United Nations warned the economic and human costs could rise if aid did not reach farmers in rice-growing regions in time for the next planting season in December and January. It also said that fishing, another crucial food source, had been placed in jeopardy by the storm.
"The destruction of boats, fishing gear, fish ponds and related equipment left many families with no means of livelihood and decreased protein intake," the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
PRAYING FOR A FUTURE
In Tacloban, church-goers in the deeply religious Roman Catholic-majority country knelt in prayer in the shells of ruined churches.
At Santo Niño Church near the waterfront, Rosario Capidos, 55, sat crying in one row, hugging her nine-year-old grandson.
Capidos had been sheltering at home with nine other members of her family when Haiyan struck on November 8. As the waters rose, she floated her three grandchildren on a slab of styrofoam through a road flooded with debris and shipping containers to a nearby Chinese temple. Her family survived.
"That's why I'm crying," she said. "I thank God I was given a second chance to live."
In Hong Kong, thousands of Filipinos, many domestic helpers on their one day off work, rallied on Sunday in parks, churches and streets to raise aid donations and pray for their loved ones at home.
"We cannot concentrate on our work, especially when we talk to them and they complain that they are so hungry," said a helper named Fatima whose daughter had been involved in a fight for instant noodles in an evacuation centre near Boracay.
Tearful Filipinos lined church pews in Hong Kong in a string of masses, while others packed boxes of relief supplies to be whisked away by courier firms offering their services for free.
"We are here physically, but in our hearts we are with the people in the Philippines," said Elvera Podador.
(Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by John Mair and Michael Perry)