Surveying the typhoon damage
02:36 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

CNN's Ivan Watson toured the typhoon-devastated region by air

Destructive power of storm surge most apparent around city of Tacloban

Seen from the air, forests of palm trees flattened, flooded villages

Red Cross fears death toll could rise when extent of disaster is fully known

Tacloban, Philippines CNN  — 

I was gob-smacked as we made our final approach into the ruins of the airport in Tacloban – the first major population center in the Philippines to be struck by Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Entire forests of palm trees on hilltops had been flattened by the sheer force of the storm.

I’d never seen anything like it.

It was a sight the other Filipino passengers on our plane had never seen either.

As we got closer to the town we could make out villages, their roads completely flooded. Then Tacloban itself – it looked completely devastated. It was as if a giant hand had come from the sky and just crushed it.

Map: Typhoon's path

READ: Conditions ‘worse than hell’

The damage was primarily caused by a wall of ocean water – a storm surge – so powerful it had even lifted up ships and tossed them onto dry land – onto what had been houses.

These scenes brought home the fact that an entire city of more than 200,000 people had been destroyed.

I was on an aerial tour of the storm-hit region with government officials. The scene was pretty overwhelming. You’ve got people wandering around in a city that’s been leveled so they were looking for everything: water, shelter and hot food.

READ: ‘Children ripped from arms’

Some were also concerned about lawlessness.

One of the first people I talked to expressed concern about the looting of what hadn’t been destroyed by the storm in the town. He was the owner of a local chain of donut shops. He told me people were actually stealing furniture from one of his “Mr. Donut” franchises.

He said he and other property owners were now arming themselves for protection. He also wore a little green whistle around his neck – they’d been using them as a kind of makeshift alarm system to protect their street.

IN PICTURES: Trail of destruction

“We have firearms, we will shoot within our property,” he warned. “We are afraid of being robbed.”

Back in the air, we flew west to survey other areas affected by Haiyan.

We saw damage caused by the record high winds – everywhere you looked houses had lost their roofs – but the damage was not on the scale of Tacloban because these areas had not been smashed by the wall of Pacific Ocean water during the storm surge.

I spoke to the chairman of the Philippines Red Cross, Richard Gordon. He was concerned about other communities along the eastern coast of the island of Leyte – where Tacloban is located – as well as the neighboring island of Samar.

He explained this was where U.S. General Douglas MacArthur chose to land his allied forces during World War II because of its easy access from the Pacific, which explains why it was also vulnerable to the tsunami-like effects of the storm surge.

READ: Why does the Philippines get hit so hard?

He told me he was afraid many other communities were also hit but couldn’t give estimates of casualties at this point due to the difficulties accessing many parts of this region.

He said aid workers were in shock because they’d seen so many dead bodies already.

When you have whole communities destroyed, it’s important to note that the first responders – often from these same areas, they are also victims. That dramatically hampers the rescue effort because your policeman, fireman, ambulance man have also probably suffered enormous losses and are themselves in shock and trying to cope.

There are so many unknowns at this stage – such as how many people could have been sucked back out to sea during the storm surge.

The Philippines Civil Aviation director I traveled with – a former air force commander – told me the local air force base commander in Tacloban was swept out to sea. Remarkably, he was found on another island hours later and is now recovering in hospital.

But in many areas the scene is depressing because it’s clear the more rudimentary the construction of the housing, the more vulnerable they are to the force of the elements. The poorest people are always the hardest hit. What little they have is gone and they don’t know where to turn to.

READ: How you can help

Tacloban is a small place in relative terms to the rest of the Philippines, but you’re still talking about around 200,000 people made homeless in a matter of hours.

There are already signs of recovery in some areas less affected by the typhoon, as people set about rebuilding their homes and businesses.

At the same time – even though they were away from the storm surge – many of these people – even those in their 60s and 70s – say this was the worst storm they’d ever witnessed, and this is a country accustomed to at least 20 typhoons a year.

While the government issued warnings to evacuate ahead of the typhoon, no-one anticipated a storm that could generate a wall of water powerful enough to break through the sea wall protecting the airport in Tacloban.

It literally smashed open stretches of the seawall and washed away concrete buildings. That’s something new for this country – a country that is no a stranger to typhoons and even earthquakes.