MANILA Nov 19 The Philippines will divide up the typhoon-ravaged central Visayas between countries to maximise relief efforts, a senior officer said, as President Benigno Aquino won guarded praise for improving aid distribution 11 days after the storm hit.
But the country is still struggling to get aid to devastated areas due to the extent of the destruction, which has left four million people displaced, threatening Aquino's reforms that have helped transform the Philippines into one of Asia's fastest-growing and hottest emerging economies.
Aquino is now personally overseeing relief operations in the worst-hit city of Tacloban in one of Asia's biggest humanitarian efforts which could last months, if not years.
The military commander of the Visayas, Lieutenant-General Roy Deveraturda, said the relief plan was to now cut the region into blocks and decide which military forces operate where.
"We're planning to ask the British Royal Navy to concentrate on the western Visayas region to assess and deliver food, water and supplies to smaller islands... We already have the Americans in Samar and Leyte and Israeli doctors and relief teams in northern tip of Cebu," he said.
About 50 U.S. ships and aircraft have been mobilized in the disaster zone, led by the USS George Washington aircraft carrier. The USS Freedom, a combat ship for coastal waters, arrived in Brunei on Monday en route to the Philippines.
Authorities estimate more than 3,900 people were killed when Typhoon Haiyan made landfall on Nov. 8 and the sea surged ashore. Estimates of the death toll have varied widely, and the governor of worst-hit Leyte province said more than 4,000 people could have been killed on the island of Leyte alone.
The International Labour Organization said five million workers had had their lives turned upside down.
"But this is not just a matter of numbers," ILO Philippine Office director Lawrence Jeff Johnson said. "These are people whose livelihoods have been destroyed."
The United Nations has expressed fear that some islands may still not have been reached by aid workers, but the government denied this.
"Basically, we've provided everyone with relief. What we are doing right now is sustainment," said Eduardo del Rosario, director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
NO LONG-TERM THREAT TO ECONOMY
A British destroyer anchored off Cebu and its helicopters were flying mercy missions to smaller islands, Deveraturda said. Once a larger British carrier arrived with seven helicopters, that would be the best platform for relief for the western Visayas. A Canadian team with a C10 plane has been operating in and around the western island of Iloilo.
"We are doing another assessment of the affected areas to determine the needs and match them with our available resources. For instance, we have three Japanese ships with ground mobility and heavy equipment arriving in several days and we'll look at where and how they would be effective."
The relief effort is key to the fortunes of Aquino, 53, who got off to a bad start when the disaster struck, downplaying the extent of the crisis and appearing aloof.
Last week, his popularity was under threat, but he now appears more confident in front of the news cameras, rationalising the extent of the damage.
"There's been some improvement in the government's relief efforts," said Peter Wallace, president of the Manila-based Wallace Business Forum consultancy. "Being able to move to Manila a number of displaced people, provide them with sustenance, we see that happening now. Clearing of the roads have been done, which is also extremely important."
Attorney Tecson John Lim, city administrator of Tacloban, said the national government has been trying to do its best.
"The president has been through a lot. Perhaps some of the things he mentioned might not have been exactly prudent," he said. "... I think he has seen and is learning to put this aside, whatever biases he might have had."
Most analysts don't see the economy taking a long-term hit. The central bank raised its inflation forecasts for this year and next, but said the faster pace of price increases was not expected to force a rise in interest rates just yet.
The government said on Tuesday 24,770 personnel, 1,306 vehicles, 104 ships and boats and 163 aircraft had been deployed. A total of 88 medical teams, 43 foreign and 45 local, have spread out across the region.
Asif Ahmad, the British ambassador to the Philippines, said the relief operations could last months, if not longer.
"How long would it take to grow a coconut tree?," he asked. (Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco, Eric dela Cruz and Karen Lema in Manila, Stuart McDill in Hernani andc Nathan Layne in Tacloban; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Michael Perry)