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By FLOYD WHALEY
MANILA — The powerful typhoon that swept across the Philippines on Friday, one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall, cut a path of destruction through several central islands, leaving the seaside city of Tacloban in ruins and leading to early estimates of at least 1,200 dead.
“The local Red Cross chapter has seen many bodies,” Gwendolyn Pang, the secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross, said in a text message. “An actual body count has to be done to determine the exact number.”
Some meteorologists said the storm, called Yolanda in the Philippines, hit land with sustained winds above 190 miles per hour.
Photos and television footage showed fierce winds ripping tin roofs off homes and sending waves crashing into wooden buildings that splintered under the force. Video footage shows ocean water rushing through the streets of Tacloban, which has an estimated population of 220,000. Experts said the flooding there was a result of a storm surge.
Speaking to Reuters, the manager of the city’s airport, which is on a strip of land that juts into the sea, estimated that water there rose up to 13 feet. Reuters also quoted a spokesman for the national disaster agency saying that almost all the houses in Tacloban were badly damaged or destroyed.
A bicycle taxi driver who lives near the airport told The Associated Press that he and his family had taken refuge in a parked jeep, which was swept away in the roiling waters. The man, Sandy Torotoro, said that as the vehicle floated by, many people screamed for help as they were swept away, waving their hands above the water.
“But what can we do?” he said. “We also needed to be helped.”
Officials have reported seeing bodies strewn along the roadside and survivors desperately searching for food and water.
The Social Welfare and Development Department said that the storm affected 4.28 million people in about 270 towns and cities spread across 36 provinces in the central Philippines.
President Benigno S. Aquino III said at a news briefing on Saturday evening in Manila that he would visit the hardest-hit areas on Sunday, and that he expected there to be “substantially more” deaths than the 140 the government has confirmed so far. “We are not prepared to say how much more at this point in time, because that is also being collated,” he said.
Mr. Aquino added that the restoration of communications was a priority so rescue efforts can be coordinated. The government has been flying in military cargo planes carrying food, clothing and shelters, but blocked roads have made distribution difficult.
A United Nations disaster assessment team visited the area on Saturday.
“The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami,” Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the head of the team, said in a statement, referring to the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia and other countries. “This is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumbleweed, and the streets are strewn with debris.
“The roads between the airport and the town are completely blocked,” he said, “and relief operations will be extremely difficult.”
Richard Gordon, the chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, said in an interview that his staff members on the ground had been profoundly affected by the level of devastation.
“Our people are shocked by what they are seeing,” he said. “They have never seen anything like this.”
Mr. Gordon said that most of the information about damage and casualties was coming out of Tacloban, where the news media and government officials are concentrated. Towns elsewhere on the island of Leyte remain largely out of contact.
“When we get to the interior towns, I fear we will find a lot of dead bodies,” he said.
He said there were also areas out of contact in northern Cebu and on the island of Panay, as well as parts of Palawan and Mindoro.
In a sign of the difficulties of reaching some of the hardest-hit areas, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said that people would need to do their best to survive while rescuers tried to reach them.
According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the deadliest storm in Philippine history was Tropical Storm Thelma, which flooded the town of Ormoc, on Leyte Island, on Nov. 15, 1991, and killed more than 5,000 people.
The second deadliest was Typhoon Bopha, which hit a southern island, Mindanao, on Dec. 3, 2012, and killed 1,900 people.