WASHINGTON (CNN) — The hundreds of thousands of typhoon victims in the Philippines need help, and they need it now, the U.S. Marine Corps general in charge of the U.S. military relief effort says.
Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy told CNN he needs immediate dispatch of U.S. Navy amphibious ships that carry equipment to produce potable water and the variety of helicopters, small boats, trucks and other supplies needed in the relief effort.
“They are the Swiss army knife of the U.S. military,” Kennedy said of the amphibious ships, speaking to CNN in a telephone interview from the Philippines.
The Pentagon appeared to be heeding his call. Two U.S. Navy amphibious ships are now sailing from their home base in Sasebo, Japan, to Okinawa, where they will pick up Marines and continue on to the Philippines, a U.S. military official said Tuesday evening.
Three warships that are home-ported in the Pacific are also under orders to prepare to deploy in the next 48 hours, a senior Pentagon official told CNN.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said the military is working hard to give Kennedy whatever he needs. He said 250 U.S. service members are now in the Philippines, and they have delivered 107,000 pounds of relief supplies.
Kennedy said the most crucial need right now is to provide shelter for the tens of thousands of displaced people, as well as food, water and sanitation. The situation is so dire there may not even be enough time or capability to fly in portable toilets, and human waste might have to be burned in place, he said.
While U.S. Marines are on the ground providing aid and more U.S. military help has been dispatched, Kennedy said more help is urgently needed.
“The rest of the world needs to get mobilized, the rest of the donor community,” he told NBC News. “A week from now will be too late. ”
“We can’t wait,” said Martin Romualdez, a Philippines congressman. “People have gone three days without any clean water, food and medication,” he told CNN’s “Piers Morgan Live.” “People are getting desperate.”
Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines on Friday as one of the most powerful storms recorded.
By Tuesday, officials had counted 1,774 deaths from the storm. Authorities had said Haiyan may have taken as many as 10,000 lives, but Philippines President Benigno Aquino III told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday that the death toll would more likely be about 2,000 or 2,500 people.
With wind gusts well above 200 mph and a massive storm surge, the storm displaced at least 800,000 people, the United Nations said Tuesday.
More than 2 million people need food aid, the Philippine government said.
Compounding relief efforts Tuesday was a new tropical low, Zoraida, which has dumped 4 inches of rain in some of the hard-hit areas. That makes the amphibious ships Kennedy has asked for even more vital.
The amphibious ships have tracked “assault amphibious vehicles” that can carry supplies and move over and through piles of debris to distribution points where aid is needed most.
The Pentagon has dispatched the aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which was visiting Hong Kong, to the disaster area. Two cruisers, three destroyers and a supply ship are joining the carrier for the mission, Little said.
“The George Washington can produce more than 400,000 gallons of fresh water per day. As you know, and as a reminder, a U.S. Navy carrier, the USS Lincoln, supported tsunami relief operations in 2004 in the Pacific, providing much needed capabilities to operations ashore,” Little said.
The U.S. military relief effort will take supplies to distribution points, but those supplies will be then handed out by Philippines forces, Kennedy said. Local forces are in the best position to know community leaders and make sure those in the most need are getting the help, he added.
As of Tuesday night in the Philippines, lights and radars were being assembled at the airport in Tacloban, at the heart of the disaster zone, and the facility was expected to be running full day and nighttime operations within 24 hours, he said.
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By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent