Authorities estimated the typhoon killed 10,000 or more people, but with the slow pace of recovery, the official death toll three days after the storm made landfall remained at 942.
However, with shattered communications and transportation links, the final count was likely days away, and presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said "we pray" it does not surpass 10,000.
"I don't believe there is a single structure that is not destroyed or severely damaged in some way — every single building, every single house," U.S. Marine Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy said after taking a helicopter flight over Tacloban, the largest city in Leyte province. He spoke on the tarmac at the airport, where two Marine C-130 cargo planes were parked, engines running, unloading supplies.
Authorities said at least 9.7 million people in 41 provinces were affected by the typhoon, known as Haiyan elsewhere in Asia but called Yolanda in the Philippines. It was likely the deadliest natural disaster to beset this poor Southeast Asian nation.
"Please tell my family I'm alive," said Erika Mae Karakot as she stood among a throng of people waiting for aid. "We need water and medicine because a lot of the people we are with are wounded. Some are suffering from diarrhea and dehydration due to shortage of food and water."
Philippine soldiers were distributing food and water, and assessment teams from the United Nations and other international agencies were seen Monday for the first time. The U.S. military dispatched food, water, generators and a contingent of Marines to the city, the first outside help in what will swell into a major international relief mission.
Authorities said they had evacuated some 800,000 people ahead of the typhoon, but many evacuation centers proved to be no protection against the wind and rising water. The Philippine National Red Cross, responsible for warning the region and giving advice, said people were not prepared for a storm surge.
"Imagine America, which was prepared and very rich, still had a lot of challenges at the time of Hurricane Katrina, but what we had was three times more than what they received," said Gwendolyn Pang, the group's executive director.
Emily Ortega, 21 and about to give birth, said she clung to a post to survive after the evacuation center she fled to was devastated by the 20-foot (6-meter) storm surge. She reached safety at the airport, where she gave birth to a baby girl, Bea Joy Sagales, whose arrival drew applause from the military medics who assisted in the delivery.
The wind, rain and coastal storm surges transformed neighborhoods into twisted piles of debris, blocking roads and trapping decomposing bodies underneath. Cars and trucks lay upended among flattened homes, and bridges and ports were washed away.
"In some cases the devastation has been total," said Secretary to the Cabinet Rene Almendras.
At U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, Poland, the envoy from the Philippines broke down in tears as he described waiting in agony for news from relatives caught in the massive storm's path.
"In solidarity with my countrymen, who are struggling to find food back home ... I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate," said the envoy, Naderev "Yeb" Sano, who urged delegates to work toward "meaningful" change. His emotional appeal was met with a standing ovation.