At least 41,000 missing as officials reveal tidal wave destroyed town
YANGON, Myanmar – The death toll from a powerful cyclone that slammed into Myanmar’s Irrawaddy delta was raised to more than 22,000 people on Tuesday, state media reported.
An additional 41,000 people were missing as a result of the cyclone, which triggered a massive storm surge that swept inland and left people with nowhere to run, killing at least 10,000 people in one town alone.
“More deaths were caused by the tidal wave than the storm itself,” Minister for Relief and Resettlement Maung Maung Swe told a news conference in the devastated former capital, Yangon, where food and water supplies are running low.
“The wave was up to 12 feet high and it swept away and inundated half the houses in low-lying villages,” he said, giving the first detailed description of the weekend cyclone. “They did not have anywhere to flee.”
It is the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh.
Relief efforts for the stricken area, mostly in the low-lying Irrawaddy River delta, have been difficult, in large part because of the destruction of roads and communications outlets by the storm. The first assistance from overseas arrived Tuesday from neighboring Thailand.
Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said the military were “doing their best,” but analysts said there could be political fallout for military rulers of the former Burma who pride themselves on their ability to cope with any challenge.
Giving the first detailed account of the worst cyclone to hit Asia since 1991, when 143,000 people died in Bangladesh, Foreign Minister Nyan Win said on state television 10,000 people had died just in Bogalay, a town 50 miles southwest of Yangon.
“The losses have been much greater than we anticipated,” Thai Foreign Minister Noppadol Pattama said after a meeting with Myanmar’s ambassador to Bangkok. Myanmar’s ambassador, Ye Win, declined to speak to reporters.
The U.N. World Food Program, which was preparing to fly in food supplies, offered a grim assessment of the destruction: up to a million people possibly homeless, some villages almost totally destroyed and vast rice-growing areas wiped out.
“We hope to fly in more assistance within the next 48 hours,” WFP spokesman Paul Risley said in Bangkok. “The challenge will be getting to the affected areas with road blockages everywhere.”
Images from state television showed large trees and electricity poles sprawled across roads as well as roofless houses ringed by water in the delta, regarded as Myanmar’s rice bowl.
The country’s ruling military junta, which has spurned the international community for decades, urgently appealed for foreign aid at a meeting Monday among Nyan Win and diplomats in Yangon.
Reflecting the scale of the disaster, the ruling military junta said it would postpone to May 24 a constitutional referendum in the worst-hit areas of Yangon and the sprawling Irrawaddy delta.
However, state TV said the May 10 vote on a charter, part of the army’s much-criticized “roadmap to democracy,” would proceed as planned in the rest of the Southeast Asian country where security forces violently cracked down on protests last year.
A military transport plane was scheduled to land in Yangon later Tuesday with emergency aid from Thailand while a number of other countries and organizations said they were prepared to follow.
The United States, which has slapped economic sanctions on the country, said it likewise stood ready, but that a U.S. disaster team must be invited into the country.
“Our biggest fear is that the aftermath could be more lethal than the storm itself,” said Caryl Stern, who heads the U.N. Children’s Fund in the United States. UNICEF said it had dispatched five assessment teams to three of the affected areas and lifesaving supplies were being moved into position.
Other countries, from Canada to the Czech Republic, reacted quickly to the crisis with pledges of aid.
The European Commission was providing $3.1 million in humanitarian aid while the president of neighboring China, Hu Jintao, promised assistance without offering details.
The diplomats said they were told Myanmar welcomed international aid including urgently needed roofing materials, medicine, water purifying tablets and mosquito nets. The Thais were sending a shipment of 9.9 tons of such supplies.
The appeal for assistance was unusual for Myanmar’s ruling generals, who have long been suspicious of international organizations and have closely controlled their activities.
The wife of the U.S. president said her country was ready to pump aid into Myanmar for recovery efforts, but that the ruling junta must accept a U.S. disaster response team.
First lady Laura Bush, who has been the administration’s chief voice on human rights and political conditions in Myanmar, faulted the junta for proceeding with the constitutional referendum, and criticized government leaders for not sufficiently warning citizens about the storm.
“We know already that they are very inept,” she said.
There was little sign of official efforts to repair the damage in Yangon, but the worst-hit areas were in the countryside, now largely inaccessible by road because of the storm damage.
“The combination of the cyclone and the referendum within a few days of each other makes an angry population angrier and vulnerable and makes the political situation more volatile” than it has been since last year’s massive pro-democracy demonstrations, said Monique Skidmore, a Myanmar expert at Australian National University.
At least 31 people were killed and thousands more were detained when the military cracked down on peaceful protests in September led by Buddhist monks and democracy advocates.
The government had apparently taken few efforts to prepare for the storm, which came bearing down on the country from the Bay of Bengal late Friday.
“The government misled people,” said Thin Thin, a grocery story owner in Yangon. “They could have warned us about the severity of the coming cyclone so we could be better prepared.”
Yangon was without electricity except where gas-fed generators were available and residents lined up to buy candles at double the usual price. Most homes were without water, forcing families to stand in long lines for drinking water and bathe in the city’s lakes.
Rare acceptance of help
The scale of the disaster in the military-ruled southeast Asian nation drew a rare acceptance of outside help from the diplomatically isolated generals, who spurned such approaches in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Bernard Delpuech, a European Union aid official in Yangon, said the junta had sent three ships carrying food to the delta region, rice bowl for Myanmar’s 53 million people. Nearly half the population live in the five disaster-hit states.
In its coverage of the disaster, state media have made much of the military’s response, showing footage of soldiers manhandling tree trunks or top generals climbing into helicopters or greeting homeless storm victims in Buddhist temples.
However, there could be big political fallout for a military junta that has prided itself on its ability to cope with any challenge thrown its way, analysts said.
“The myth they have projected about being well-prepared has been totally blown away,” said political analyst Aung Naing Oo, who fled to Thailand after a brutally crushed 1988 uprising. ”This could have a tremendous political impact in the long term.”
Aid agency World Vision in Australia said it had been granted special visas to send in personnel to back up 600 staff in the impoverished Southeast Asian country.
“This is massive. It is not necessarily quite tsunami level, but in terms of impact of millions displaced, thousands dead, it is just terrible,” World Vision Australia head Tim Costello said.
“Organizations like ours have been given permission, which is pretty unprecedented, to fly people in. This shows how grave it is in the Burmese government’s mind,” he said.
Residents of the city of 5 million were queuing up for bottled water and there was still no electricity four days after the vicious Cyclone Nargis struck.
Prices of food, fuel and construction materials have skyrocketed, and most shops have sold out of candles and batteries. An egg costs three times what it did on Friday.
“Generators are selling very well under the generals,” said one man waiting outside a shop, reflecting some of the resentment on the streets to what many described as a slow warning and response.
Buddhist monks and home-owners hacked at fallen trees with hand saws and axes, trying to clear roads. Soldiers were seen clearing debris and trees only at major intersections, fuelling a sense among residents that the military was not doing enough.
Anger at the authorities is still high because of their bloody crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks in September.
“The regime has lost a golden opportunity to send the soldiers as soon as the storm stopped to win the heart and soul of people,” one retired civil servant told a Reuters.
“But where are the soldiers and police? They were very quick and aggressive when there were protests in the streets last year,” he said.
Photos and Pictures from Myanmar Cyclone
This handout from the Royal Thai Air Force shows an aerial view of the outskirts of Yangon on May 6, 2008 inundated with floodwaters from Cyclone Nargis. The Thai military will transport medicine and food to Myanmar to help the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless after the powerful tropical cyclone struck last weekend, a general said on May 5. CROPPED VERSION RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE GETTY OUT AFP PHOTO / HANDOUT ROYAL THAI AIR FORCE Captain Chanchai KANTAWONG
This photo taken on May 3, 2008 and received May 6, 2008 shows a monk walking past branches covering the road after being blown down by winds from Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon. More than 15,000 people died after the powerful cyclone swept across Myanmar last weekend, including 10,000 in a single town, the military government announced on May 6, 2008 in state media.
This handout photo made on May 4, 2008, and released Monday, May 5, 2008, shows the Labor Residential Area in Shan Kyaung Ward on the outskirts of Rangoon following the cyclone, in Hlaing Township, Myanmar.
This handout photo from the Democratic Voice of Burma shows people sitting on a downed tree in Myanmar’s capital Yangon on May 4, 2008 after cyclone Nargis swept through the country killing scores. Myanmar said on May 5, that more than 10,000 people died in the cyclone that battered the impoverished nation, whose secretive military rulers made a rare appeal for international help to cope with the tragedy.
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