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Cyclone Kills More Than 22,000 People in Myanmar

 Myanmar cyclone death toll hits 22,000

At least 41,000 missing as officials reveal tidal wave destroyed town


MSNBC News Services, May. 6, 2008


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.

(The cyclone, named Nargis, shared many of the same destructive dynamics as Hurricane Katrina.)

"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 Myanmars 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.


Urgent appeal


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 armys 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.


'Biggest fear'


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 Myanmars 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 militarys 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 governments mind, he said.


Price increases


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.


The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.



Burmese storm toll 'tops 10,000', May 5, 2008

More than 10,000 people were killed in a devastating cyclone that hit western Burma on Saturday, Foreign Minister Nyan Win has said on state TV.

He said his government was ready to accept international assistance. Aid shipments are now being prepared.

Thousands of survivors of Cyclone Nargis are lacking shelter, drinking water, power and communications, but in many regions help has not yet arrived.

Five regions in which 24 million people live have been declared disaster zones.

Expressing his sadness at the scale of the disaster, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon confirmed that UN officials were meeting Burmese government representatives to discuss how to help.

If the toll is confirmed, Nargis is now the world's deadliest storm since a 1999 cyclone in India killed 10,000 people.

Nargis hit the south-east Asian country on Saturday with wind speeds reaching 190km/h (120mph). It brought with it a sea surge that smashed through towns and villages.

Earlier on Monday, the death toll was being put at 351 but the foreign minister later went on TV to announce the figure of at least 10,000.

With information still coming in, he warned the toll could yet rise.

The towns of Bogalay and Laputta, in the region of Irrawaddy, are among those locations particularly badly hit, state media have reported.

None of the casualty figures have been independently confirmed.

The BBC is not permitted to report from Burma, also known as Myanmar.

Houses 'skeletal'

Thousands of buildings have been flattened, power lines downed, trees uprooted, roads blocked and water supplies disrupted.

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Aerial footage of the cyclone aftermath

A Rangoon resident who spoke to relatives in Laputta told BBC Burmese that 75% to 80% of the town had been destroyed.

Houses along the coast had been reduced to skeletal structures, 16 villages had been virtually wiped out and no help had reached Laputta, he said.

Pictures on state TV show security services working to clear roads but in Rangoon and elsewhere there are complaints that the response to the disaster has been weak.

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An eyewitness describes the cyclone

"Where are the soldiers and police? They were very quick and aggressive when there were protests in the streets last year," a retired government worker complained to Reuters news agency.

He was referring to protests led by Buddhist monks last year that were quickly put down.

Earlier, a BBC journalist monitoring the situation in Burma from Bangkok, Soe Win, said the shortages of power and water were particularly critical.

Local people were saying that if the situation continued for another two or three days, it would be really difficult for them, he reported.

Aid assessment

Several hundred thousand people are in need of shelter and clean drinking water, UN disaster response official Richard Horsey said.

But damage to roads and communications mean it is impossible to tell the true extent of the situation, he added.

Prices of food, fuel and basic necessities have also risen dramatically.

The UN and international aid agencies are sending assessment teams to the worst-hit areas and shipments are being prepared.

Thailand has announced it is flying in a transport plane loaded with nine tonnes of food and medicines and India is sending two naval ships carrying food, tents, blankets, clothing and medicines.

The US, which released an immediate funding package of $250,000 (£127,000) to be channelled through the UN, said that Burmese authorities had refused permission for an American disaster assistance response team to enter.

Meanwhile, Burma's military junta has said a referendum on a new national constitution will go ahead on Saturday. People were "eagerly looking forward to voting", it said.

But some people are now wondering if this natural disaster could have serious political repercussions, reports the BBC's Andrew Harding in the Thai capital Bangkok.

Published: 2008/05/05 19:14:58 GMT



Cyclone death toll nears 4,000 in Myanmar, state radio says


The Associated Press, May. 5, 2008


YANGON, Myanmar - Almost 4,000 people were killed and nearly 3,000 others are unaccounted for after a devastating cyclone in Myanmar, a state radio station said Monday.


Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the Southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, early Saturday with winds of up to 120 mph. The cyclone blew roofs off hospitals and schools and cut electricity in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon.


The government had previously put the death toll countrywide at 351 before increasing it Monday to 3,939.


The radio station broadcasting from the country's capital, Naypyitaw, said that 2,879 more people are unaccounted for in a single town, Bogalay, in the country's low-lying Irrawaddy River delta area where the storm wreaked the most havoc.


The situation in the countryside remained unclear because of poor communications and roads left impassable by the storm.


"It's clear that we're dealing with a very serious situation. The full extent of the impact and needs will require an extensive on-the-ground assessment," said Richard Horsey, a spokesman in Bangkok, Thailand for United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.


"What is clear at this point is that there are several hundred thousands of people in dire need of shelter and clean drinking water," Horsey said.


At a meeting with foreign diplomats and representatives of U.N. and international aid agencies, Myanmar's foreign ministry officials said they welcomed international humanitarian assistance and urgently need roofing materials, plastic sheets and temporary tents, medicine, water purifying tablets, blankets and mosquito nets.


Neighboring Thailand announced that it would fly some aid in Tuesday.


Older citizens said they had never seen Yangon, a city of some 6.5 million, so devastated in their lifetimes.


With the city's already unstable electricity supply virtually nonfunctional, citizens lined up to buy candles, which doubled in price, and water since lack of electricity-driven pumps left most households dry. Some walked to the city's lakes to wash.


Hotels and richer families were using private generators but only sparingly, given the soaring price of fuel.


Many stayed away from their jobs, either because they could not find transportation or because they had to seek food and shelter for their families.


"Without my daily earning, just survival has become a big problem for us," said Tin Hla, who normally repairs umbrellas at a roadside stand.

With his home destroyed by the storm, Tin Hla said he has had to place his family of five into one of the monasteries that have offered temporary shelter to those left homeless.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.  


Myanmar declares disaster after cyclone


The Associated Press,  May. 4, 2008


YANGON, Myanmar - More than 240 people were killed and thousands of homes were destroyed by a powerful cyclone that swept through Myanmar, state-run media said Sunday.


Five regions of the impoverished country have been declared disaster zones following the storm, which struck early Saturday, the military-run Myaddy television station said.


State-run television reported that 241 people died in the storm, nearly 222 of them from the country's low-lying Irrawaddy delta. The rest were killed in Yangon, which was devastated and left without electricity.


"The Irrawaddy delta was hit extremely hard not only because of the wind and rain but because of the storm surge," said Chris Kaye, the U.N.'s acting humanitarian coordinator in Yangon. "The villages there have reportedly been completely flattened."


Kaye said he was told earlier in the day by the government that 138 people have died and that thousands of homes were destroyed.

The U.N. planned to send teams Monday to assess the damage, he said. Initial assessment efforts have been hampered by roads clogged with debris and downed phone lines, he said.


"At the moment, we have such poor opportunity for communications that I can't really tell you very much," Kaye said.


Witnesses in Yangon said the storm's 120 mph winds blew the roofs off hundreds of houses, damaged hotels, schools and hospitals, and cut electricity to the entire city. The state-owned newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported Sunday that the international airport in Yangon remained shut.


Domestic flights have been diverted to the airport in Mandalay, it said.


"It's a bad situation. Almost all the houses are smashed. People are in a terrible situation," said a U.N. official in Yangon, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

"All the roads are blocked. There is no water. There is no electricity," she said.


Yangon residents ventured out Sunday to buy construction materials to repair their homes. Some people expressed anger that the military-led government had done little so far to help with the cleanup.


"Where are all those uniformed people who are always ready to beat civilians?" said one man, who refused to be identified for fear of retribution. "They should come out in full force and help clean up the areas and restore electricity."


The cyclone came at a delicate time for Myanmar, which is scheduled to hold a referendum May 10 on the country's military-backed draft constitution.


A military-managed national convention was held intermittently for 14 years to lay down guidelines for the country's new constitution.

The new constitution is supposed to be followed in 2010 by a general election. Both votes are elements of a "roadmap to democracy" drawn up by the junta, which has been in power for two decades.

Critics say the draft constitution is designed to cement military power and have urged citizens to vote no.


Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.