By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is sending the USS George Washington aircraft carrier and other ships to bolster relief efforts in the Philippines after a devastating typhoon killed thousands of people, U.S. officials said on Monday.
The Pentagon, confirming an earlier Reuters report about the deployment, said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had ordered the nuclear-power aircraft carrier and other ships "to make best speed for the Republic of the Philippines."
The George Washington is now in Hong Kong and was expected to arrive within 48-to-72 hours, along with other ships, including guided missile cruisers and destroyers. The carrier was expected to depart in the coming hours. Crew were being recalled early from shore leave, the Pentagon said.
With some 5,000 sailors and more than 80 aircraft, the George Washington brings enormous capacity to relief efforts.
Beyond serving a staging platform for flights, the carrier's water distilling plants can produce 400,000 gallons (1.5 million liters) of fresh water per day, according to its website.
"As needed, these ships and aircraft will be able to provide humanitarian assistance, supplies, and medical care in support of the ongoing (relief) efforts," Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
News of the ramped U.S. military assistance came as rescue workers in the Philippines tried to determine the full impact of Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, which slammed into the country on Friday.
Officials in Tacloban, which bore the brunt of the typhoon, have said the death toll could be 10,000 in their city alone.
At least a dozen U.S. and Philippines military cargo planes arrived in Tacloban on Monday, with the Philippine air force saying it had flown in about 66 tons of relief supplies since Saturday.
An initial contingent of U.S. forces were already on the ground, with most operating out of Villamor Air Base in Manila, and a smaller group in Tacloban.
Accompanying the George Washington will be the cruisers USS Antietam and USS Cowpens and the destroyer USS Mustin.
The supply ship USNS Charles Drew is already under way and will rendezvous with the group as they get closer, the Pentagon said. The destroyer USS Lassen left yesterday for the region, officials said.
The George Washington also counts a carrier air wing on board with helicopters that can bolster disaster relief efforts, if required, officials said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Manuel Mogato and Andrew R.C. Marshall in Tacloban; Editing by Sandra Maler)