TACLOBAN, Philippines — Armed police flown in from Manila kept their machine guns trained on six looters who lay face-down on the sidewalk.
The men had been caught with stolen laptop computers outside the shuttered Redstone Printing store on Justice Romualdez Street, the police said. They are among the many looters being blamed for slowing relief efforts.
Local businesses might have brought in food, fuel and essentials to this shattered city to tide people over while waiting for international aid shipments to arrive. Instead, they closed their doors and refused to do so because of the risk that the goods would be stolen.
Even so, many here sympathize with the looters — even those taking non-essential items such as computers and treadmills.
"They are panicking and scared. They think it's an insurance policy to help their families," said Edward Bongcaras, 43, a city treasury office employee.
Typhoon Haiyan: By the numbers
"I can understand the looters. I took canned goods from a warehouse. It's not good but it's survival," said Bongcaras, who has yet to hear whether two of his four children living in adjacent and very hard-hit Samar province survived Friday's typhoon.
Security remained a major worry in Tacloban on Wednesday. Looting was rampant during the day, and gunfire was heard frequently at night. The city's mayor said the shooting was mostly homeowners and store owners trying to keep people from their valuables, not criminals firing at innocent people.
"Since day one, there have been some incidents of gunfire, but it will calm down," said Tecson John Lim, the Tacloban city administrator.
But the lawlessness, no matter the intent, has a definite impact on aid relief for the people struggling to survive in this wiped-out city of 220,000 residents. Donors from outside the immediate Tacloban area admit they are nervous about sending in supplies.
Survivors jammed the airport in Tacloban, the Philippine city hit the hardest by the typhoon, seeking to leave the area as aid trickled through. (Nov. 13) AP
Staff at local service provider Globe Telecom in Ormoc, on the island's western side, wanted to send relief goods to Tacloban but delayed their truck's departure because they were afraid of armed looters targeting any vehicle that appeared to carry relief goods, Globe engineer Joel Biol said Tuesday.
And there is crime.
About 160 prisoners escaped from five regional jails as walls collapsed during the typhoon.
Wardens may have had no choice. Some probably opened the cells to keep inmates from drowning, Lim said.
Some residents say they think it is the prisoners and not residents who are robbing people and ATMs. Hunting them down is all but impossible, Lim said.
"Nobody has manpower. The city has 2,000-plus employees, but now the daily average of those working is about 75," said Lim. "We have 293 local police, but only 30 reported for duty.
"We don't know if they're dead or aren't reporting as they have to see to their families."
Bongcaras said he didn't know when he or anyone would be back on the job again.
"It could be months," he said. "I tried to go to my office today, but the smell of bodies was too bad so I went away."
The treasury office is close to an area where many bodies have been brought for mass burial and the stench was over-powering Wednesday. Many corpses still lie on roads across Tacloban, only partly covered by sheets or corrugated metal.
The Department of Health, a central government agency, has delivered body bags that began to be used Wednesday.