Up to 10,000 people are feared dead from super typhoon Haiyan as survivors tell of huge tsunami-type storm surges whipped up by near record winds that swept away entire Philippine villages.
The storm weakened over the South China Sea early on Sunday before heading to central and northern Vietnam, where it could affect 1 million people. Authorities in Vietnam say more than 600,000 people have been evacuated.
Residents of the Vietnamese capital Hanoi are braced for heavy rains and flooding, while tens of thousands of people in coastal areas were ordered to take shelter yesterday ahead of Haiyan’s expected landfall this morning.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said one of his country's deadliest recorded natural disasters had left him speechless, and he warned Filipinos to expect mass casualties.
Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas described massive damage in Tacloban, a city of 220,000 on Leyte island 580 kilometres south-east of Manila, which bore the brunt of the storm.
''From the shore and moving a kilometre inland, there are no structures standing. It's like a tsunami,'' Mr Roxas said after flying over the area in a helicopter.
''I don't know how to describe what I saw. It's horrific.''
Bodies are floating amid debris, corpses are hanging from trees and roads are blocked by trees, tangled power lines and flattened houses.
Regional police chief Elmer Soria said Leyte provincial governor Dominic Petilla had estimated the deaths at 10,000, based on reports from village officials.
A UN disaster assessment team sent to the area likened the scale of devastation to the 2004 tsunami that tore through south-east Asia, saying ''this is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumbleweed.''
Haiyan hit with 315km/h winds across a 600-kilometre stretch of islands. Most of the deaths were caused by storm surges.
''The water was as high as a coconut tree,'' said Sandy Torotoro, a bicycle taxi driver. ''I was swept away by the water rampaging with logs and trees, and our house was ripped from its moorings,'' he said.
Lynette Lim from Save the Children, who survived by sheltering under tables amid shattering glass in a building near Tacloban, said residents had lost everything and were so desperate for food, water and medicines they had looted shops and pharmacies.
''They had no option,'' Ms Lim told Fairfax Media after flying from Leyte to Manila on a military plane on Sunday.
Many shops in Tacloban were looted, with people seen carrying away flat-screen televisions, food items and even a Christmas tree.
Only 100 of the city's 2000 employees have reported for work. ''Everyone is attending to their families,'' said Tecson John Lim, the city administrator.
Ms Lim said locals had told her that some coastal villages south-east of Tacloban were even more devastated. She said she had been forced to move from room to room in an education department compound as parts of the building gave way to the force of the storm.
''When I eventually could come outside, I saw dead bodies on the road and people were carrying bodies from buildings. The situation is dire,'' she said.
On Busuanga, the last island battered by the typhoon before it blew away to the South China Sea, vice-mayor Jim Pe said most of the houses and buildings were destroyed. ''It was like a 747 flying just above my roof,'' he said.
By late Sunday rescuers still had not reached some remote villages in the affected area, including Guiun on Samar island where 40,000 people live.
Vietnam was bracing for sea surges, torrential rain and flooding as Haiyan moved towards its central provinces, including tourist destinations such as Danang city, where an estimated 200,000 people have moved to higher ground.
The storm was expected to make landfall in Vietnam early Monday. Authorities in four central provinces were evacuating more than 600,000 people.
The World Food Program said it was lifting 40 tonnes of high-energy biscuits to the Philippines, enough to feed 120,000 people for a day. The US military was sending search and rescue helicopters and other support. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said humanitarian agencies would respond rapidly.
The Australian government will provide almost $400,000 in initial emergency relief supplies.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said: ''We're immediately providing pre-positioned emergency supplies, including sleeping mats, blankets, mosquito nets, water containers and health and hygiene kits for families devastated by the typhoon.''
Two Australian disaster experts were already on the ground assisting the Philippine government and the UN, and a third was on the way.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said it knew of 1500 Australians currently in the Philippines but did not know how many were missing. A 49-year-old Australian former priest, Kevin Lee, has been confirmed dead.