Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
TACLOBAN, Philippines - As the U.S. military ramps up aid efforts in the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino III pledged Sunday to remain in the hard-hit Leyte province until he sees more of that aid reaching survivors.
Aquino is expected to set up camp in Tacloban, the capital of Leyte province, but it is not clear where he will stay. Nearly every building in the city was damaged or destroyed by the Nov. 8 Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 3,974 people, according to the latest official count released Sunday. More than 1,000 remain missing.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to Tacloban, Aquino said that while there has been some progress in the aid effort, it is not enough.
"We really want to ease the burden of everybody as soon as possible. As long as I don't see any more improvements, we'll stay here," Aquino said, referring to his official team.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is increasing its presence to help open up affected areas, said Denny Wetherald, Rear Admiral, Amphibious Force U.S. Seventh Fleet. That includes two landing ship docks - amphibious warships that transport and launch landing craft and amphibious vehicles - en route from Okinawa, Japan, Wetherald said Sunday in Manila.
The ships, set to arrive Tuesday night, carry bulldozers, earthmovers, jeeps, Humvees and surgical teams, Wetherald said.
"We shifted gears to humanitarian relief. This is not their primary mission," he said of the personnel already at work in the central Philippines, praising the skills of U.S. aviators "flying to difficult areas, into fields, surrounded by people."
U.S. planes continue to ferry Filipinos out of the disaster area.
"It's a pretty moving experience," said Wetherald of flying from hard-hit Tacloban city to Manila earlier this week on a plane packed with people evacuating their storm-wrecked homes.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will take the lead on deciding how long the aid operation, facilitated by the U.S. military, should continue, Wetherald said. "We do this for a living, we can operate for as long as needed."
The U.S. arrival greatly boosted the relief effort, said Col. Miguel Okol, a spokesman for the Philippine Air Force.
"It enabled us to airlift the goods and ease the pressure on us," he said.
The 19 C-130 cargo planes, plus other aircraft, from the USA, Philippines and other nations, "is just enough, but the struggle lies in the capacity of airports and runways to take in that amount of air assets," Okol said.
USAID has overcome major hurdles to get working systems in place, Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for the organization, said Sunday.
"This was one of the most ferocious storms to land ... it literally leveled this area, a 90% devastation rate," causing damage comparable to Port-au-Prince after the Haiti earthquake, she said.
Via a "hub and spoke" operation centered on Tacloban that spreads out to more remote areas, USAID has since Tuesday delivered plastic sheets and shelter kits to 10,000 families and hygiene kits to 10,000 families, Lindborg said.
The focus remains on essential, live-saving supplies, including high-nutrition bars, but in a few days will shift to "early recovery" efforts, she said.
USAID's donation of $20 million is already "having an impact," Lindborg said, referring to a USAID-funded project run by the United Nations that managed to return running water Saturday to 150,000 residents of Tacloban, a city of about 250,000.
Early Sunday morning, thousands of Filipinos remaining in the region flocked to Mass, including a service held in the half-destroyed Santo Nino church in Tacloban. More than 80% of the 90 million people in the Philippines are Roman Catholic.
"Despite what happened, we still believe in God," Rev. Amadero Alvero said Sunday. "The church may have been destroyed, but our faith is intact, as believers, as a people of God, our faith has not been destroyed."